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Canada's Mike Weir tees off on the 14th hole during the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open golf championship at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, June 13, 2013. (MATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS)
Canada's Mike Weir tees off on the 14th hole during the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open golf championship at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, June 13, 2013. (MATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS)

MacGregor: Weir preps for Augusta, where once he was major player Add to ...

Mike Weir would like to move from sidebar to main story.

He was once, of course, the headliner, the first Canadian and first left-hander to wear the coveted green jacket of the Masters, the little guy from Brights Grove, Ont., who beat Tiger Woods in match play, the No. 3-ranked golfer in the entire world.

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Then, starting about five years ago, he became a sidebar.

You know what a sidebar is: the little item tagged to the main story of a golf tournament that contains that week’s variation on “Canadian Mike Weir fails to make cut…,” “Mike Weir suffers injury, pulls out of tournament…,” “Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, is rebuilding his swing…,” “Mike Weir and swing coach part company….”

It will soon be 11 years since Weir’s one-hole playoff victory over American Len Mattiace. There was so much more than a green jacket involved – a million-dollar prize that helped take him, eventually, to more than $27-million in career winnings, the Order of Canada, corporate endorsements, even his own Niagara wine label.

And then, almost as suddenly as one putt launched him into fame, one swing of the club sent him spiralling down. He struck a tree root while playing in the 2010 Verizon Heritage Classic, and the blow did something to his right elbow. It seemed relatively insignificant at the time, but it was the start of a stunning decline that involved surgery, swing restructuring, new coaches and futility. In 2012, he missed the cut in 14 straight events, earning nothing in those tournaments.

He tried everything, from physiotherapy to at one point wearing electrodes on his head to track everything from his blinking to his tension as he played a practice round. In a feature story in Sportsnet magazine, one instructor described Weir’s swing as nothing short of a “wreck.”

Once No. 3 in the world golf rankings, he starts this week ranked 674th.

That, however, is three slots better than last week, when he was 677th, so perhaps the official world golf rankings people are noticing some of the improvement Weir himself claimed as Tuesday morning he spoke to reporters about the upcoming Masters, which will be held at Augusta National April 10-13.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” the 43-year-old Weir said on a conference call from San Antonio, Tex., where he will compete in this week’s PGA event. (He currently plays on an exemption available to him because he is among the top-25 career money-earners on tour.)

Last golf season, he entered 22 tournaments and made nine cuts, though he never cracked the top-10 among finishers. This year, he says, he has hit the ball better than he has for a long time – only to be let down by the one area he could always take for granted: putting.

“I’ve been really struggling on the greens,” he says, “which is really unlike me.”

So obsessive had Weir become about rebuilding his swing that he now thinks his practice time as a professional has been split 80/20, swing over putting. It’s time, he says, to “put attention back in my short game” – with the hope that it will come together before the 2014 Masters gets under way.

“Eventually you’ve got to take what you’ve learned,” he says, “and get out there and play.”

Eleven years have passed and he is not the same Mike Weir who won in 2003. But nor is Augusta National the same – now considerably lengthened to 7,700 yards – and equipment has changed dramatically, particularly in the case of drivers and golf balls.

Never a long hitter, Weir says the long-bombers who used to be 30 yards ahead of players like him off the tee are now 60 yards in front. No worries, he says, strategy still matters more than strength at Augusta: “It’s really a ‘second-shot’ golf course.”

He is fully aware that, even as a past champion, he will go to the Masters “definitely under the radar,” but finds hope in the fact that so many unfamiliar names and new faces have been having success on the PGA tour lately. As well, perennial favourite Tiger Woods is nursing an ailing back and may have to skip the major he has already won four times.

“The field is maybe as wide open as it’s been for some time,” says Weir. “I really think I can contend there. I still believe in myself, more than anything. When I step on the grounds there, I have confidence. I know how to play that golf course. I have a great strategy for that golf course that doesn’t really change. I’ve had success with that.

“When I get to Augusta, I’ll be ready for it.”

And when he leaves Augusta, he hopes it is as a story rather than yet another sidebar.

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