AUGUSTA, GA. - The practice range at the Augusta National Golf Club was busy Wednesday morning, as it has been all week in advance of the first round of the Masters. Spectators, or “patrons,” as the club calls visitors, followed their favourite players, and Canadians waited each morning to see whether Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters winner who remains their golfer of choice, would appear. He suffered a rib injury during the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando three weeks ago, and pulled out of that tournament after making the cut.
Watching Mr. Weir hit some balls on Monday at the course, spectators could see they travelled at only half speed. He hit some faster Tuesday morning, and then chipped and putted around a few holes that afternoon. On Wednesday, he went at the ball harder, still on the range, played the back nine alone, and participated in the annual Par-3 contest. His long-time friends. Jimmy and Judy Viglasky, from his hometown of Brights Grove, Ont., followed, as did their 15-year-old daughter, Jackie, who caddied. That constituted important short-game practice.
It’s been a decade since Mr. Weir won in euphoric fashion at Augusta – a moment that ignited the game in Canada – and half that since he’s won on the PGA Tour, but he’s never stopped believing he can regain his winning form. Despite multiple injuries to his right elbow and now his ribs, creeping age and nagging self-doubt, he continues to practise, tinker and analyze.
Mr. Weir is scheduled to start the opening round at 9:06 a.m. EST with Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk.
His practice sessions and the nine holes he played have given him no indication that things will get worse. He said he’s felt progressively better since Monday.
“Yeah, I’m going to play,” Mr. Weir said. “The good thing is that there’s no high rough here. I don’t have to go after everything [in the rough]. If this was the U.S. or British Open [where there’s high rough], it would be a little risky.”
Grant Waite, Mr. Weir’s swing coach and former PGA Tour winner, has been at his side during most of Mr. Weir’s practice this week. At one point, Mr. Weir chatted with Mr. Waite after his session on the range, making various moves with his arms while pointing to his ribs. Dr. David Petron, from Draper, Utah, where the golfer lives, is in Augusta with him. He told Mr. Weir that the worst damage he could do would be to set him back to where he was when he injured himself in Orlando.
On Wednesday, Mr. Weir said he was swinging at about 80-per-cent speed, and that he didn’t feel he could go after shots full out. He was driving the ball 285 yards with the roll on the firm fairways. But he acknowledged that he would need to be cautious during the tournament rounds.
“Everything gets ramped up out there,” he said. “The temptation is to try to hit it a little harder. I’m going to try to keep the same pace I had on the range.”
A game gone south
Uncertainty hangs over Mr . Weir’s start at the Masters, matched only by the feeling that hangs over his entire game. Johnny Miller, a U.S. and British Open champion, has said that the longest walk in golf is from the practice tee to the first tee. What comes easily on the practice tee doesn’t always come readily on the course during a tournament. Ten years ago, Mr. Weir had no problem taking his game from the range to the course. Then 32, he won the Masters on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff against Len Mattiace. He became the first Canadian to win a men’s professional major, and the first left-handed golfer to win the Masters.
But the walk from the practice area to the course has since become a long one for Mr. Weir. He didn’t make a cut on the PGA Tour the past two years, when he shot in the 80s seven times. A winner of seven PGA Tour events in addition to the Masters, he has shown some improvement this year, playing nine tournaments and making three cuts, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. Then he had to withdraw.