Mike Weir turned 42 on May 12th, not terribly old for a golfer but not exactly a time when one would expect a struggling golfer to find his form again. But Weir, who is playing this week's HP Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Tex., is hoping for renewal of the highest order. He's doing more than "hoping," of course. He's working as hard as ever, perhaps harder, and he's doing it with Grant Waite, his new swing coach. Waite is with Weir at the Nelson.
Waite, 47, won one PGA Tour event, back in 1993, and finished second to Tiger Woods in the 2000 Bell Canadian Open at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont. He hasn't played much tournament golfer for a few years, and introduces himself now as "Grant Waite, coach," rather than as a tour player. He's gradually established himself as one of the go-to coaches for tour players who believe that technical problems rather than any other issues are at the heart of their difficulties. Weir certainly is in that camp.
As it happens, Waite has studied technique closely. He worked with Mac O'Grady, a swing wizard and even a cult figure among golfers. Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer, the guys behind Stack & Tilt, learned from O'Grady, and say so. Ditto for Sean Foley, who studied O'Grady, and credits him, among others, with helping him develop the ideas he's been using to coach Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, and many other golfers.
Meanwhile, Waite's reputation was as one of the game's premier ball-strikers. His balance through his swing was and is impeccable. He looks effortless when he makes a swing. But the putter got him and eventually put paid to his career as a tour golfer. As he wrote in a tweet last year, "Whether or not I play well doesn't validate [my]swing info."
Weir saw Waite a year ago on the Sunday of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. They chatted, but Weir at the time decided to go in a different direction, as Waite said. Waite wasn't offended. He said soon after that "Mike is a great player who is struggling right now. He can still be a great player. I hope he does it."
Now, nearly a year later, Weir and Waite are together. Waite will spend time with Weir at tournaments, which is important. There's a big difference between practicing and playing tournament golf. As Johnny Miller once told me, "The longest walk in golf is the 50 yards from the practice tee to the first tee. I can look like anybody I want on the practice tee. But I become Johnny Miller on the course." That wasn't too bad, to be sure.
But Weir has struggled mightily taking his game from the range to tournaments. Nick Price worked with Weir on the back of the range at the McArthur Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. in March, the week of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens. Weir was striping the ball, hitting tour-quality shots, the sorts of shots he used to win eight PGA Tour events, including the 2003 Masters.
Then Weir shot 75-78 to miss the cut at the Honda, and would have been quite a bit higher if not for his deft short game, which he's retained. Price was surprised, although even he, a three-time major champion, knows how tricky it is to take one's game from the practice tee to the first tee of a tournament.
"When you get on the practice tee, you're so focused on trying to work on one thing," Price said this week during a conference call about his participation next month in the Champions Tour's Montreal Championship. "The range is 80 to 100 yards wide, and you get into a rhythm. You're not into your target so much."
But then comes tournament golf, where, Price said, the game is all about hitting fairways and greens. He said there's a knack or art to playing the game as opposed to practicing, and that it's all about strategy. Price asked Ben Hogan in the early 1980s about this.
"He said that he doesn't shoot at too many pins," Price remembered. Hogan knew where the ball was going and that the art of scoring was in placing the ball properly. Weir hasn't been confident of his swing, which means he's had little idea of how the ball will come off the clubface. No wonder he's missed the cut in each of the seven tournaments he's played this year.
Weir has just finished his first hole at the Nelson. He drove into the left rough, hit his second into a bunker 20 yards from the green, and came out to three feet from the hole. He made the par putt. Weir then missed the green at the par-3 second and bogied the hole. We'll see what happens the rest of the way, the rest of the tournament, and the rest of the season.
For now, it's Weir with Waite, and Waite with Weir. Forgive me, but let's call this a "Waiteing game." Weir has demonstrated during the course of his impressive career that he's tough-minded, and willing to wait for better results. Weir continues to look for ways to find a swing that will send the ball where he wants it to go, rather than here, there, and everywhere. It's been a rough ride.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein