The new wraparound 2013-2014 PGA Tour season begins Thursday with the Frys.com Open in San Martin, Calif., and Mike Weir intends to make it a good one. The 2003 Masters champion has been working as hard as ever to play well again and post the scores that will make him a contender and, ultimately, a winner again. He hasn't won since 2007, his eighth PGA Tour win. Weir doesn't want to simply make up the fields in PGA Tour events. He means to be there on Sundays.
This week will begin to show whether his game matches his ambition. It won't be easy – is golf ever easy? Weir will be 44 in May and he's suffered many insults to his body, his swing, and his self-confidence since he was ranked as high as third in the world. The guy's won the Masters. He's won a World Golf Championships event, a Tour Championship. He could quit today and he'd have had a tremendous career.
But Weir wants what every golfer, every real golfer, wants. He wants to hit pure golf shots again, time after time after time. The difference is that he wants to hit them at the highest levels of the game, which was where he was for a few years.
Weir says he is now healthy, fully recovered from surgery two years ago to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow. He's a left-handed golfer, which means his leading arm coming into impact had been compromised. He understandably and to some extent unconsciously had made compensations during his swing to cope with the elbow injury before surgery. But it wasn't easy for him to make the swing he wanted even after surgery.
The mind plays tricks on golfers. Weir's elbow surgery had been successful, but could he believe that and swing freely and aggressively even after the repair work? What if his ball was down in the rough? Could he go after it? Telling himself it was okay was one thing. Doing it was another.
Weir had missed the cut in 11 of 13 tournaments in 2011, before surgery. His best finishes were a T-70 and a T-77. He withdrew from the RBC Canadian Open in Vancouver in July after six holes of the second round, when he was in pain and when every shot out of the rough especially was a potential career-wrecker. He couldn't get down to the ball. Why continue? The Canadian Open was his last of the year and then he had his elbow surgery.
After rehabbing, Weir returned for the 2012 season. He had worked with Stack & Tilt instructors Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer for a few years, and then he returned to Mike Wilson, the swing coach with whom he was working when he won the 2003 Masters. He consulted with Butch Harmon, and he spoke with Jack Nicklaus, David Leadbetter, and the late Jim Flick. Weir was in full search mode. He wanted to own his swing so that he could fix it when it went wrong. He also wanted to play more by feel and instinct.
But Weir is not somebody who can play only by feel. Nor is he by nature somebody who can play without immersing himself into swing mechanics. He told me last year that he needs to know why he made a bad swing. What was the technical reason?
Clearly, there are technical reasons when a swing does go wrong. Some players can say, "Well, I'm human. Big deal," and go on. But Weir wants to understand why he made a bad swing. Watch him at a tournament and it's impossible to miss how often he stands at the side before or after a swing, trying to get into a particular position.
Weir started in the late spring of 2012 to work with former PGA Tour player turned swing coach Grant Waite. Waite and his teaching partner Joseph Mayo use Trackman in their work – as many coaches today do. (Sean Foley, for one). Trackman shows in detail what is going on during a swing. It's a precise instrument that provides data such as ball speed, spin rate, face angle, club path, and much more. Its many proponents claim that it promotes evidence-based instruction.
Meanwhile, the degree to which the numbers translate into better golf is still in question. It would be helpful to have controlled studies. But one thing is clear: Trackman provides important information. Instruction has been more art than science. The scale is now tipping toward the latter.
Weir played 14 tournaments in 2012, and missed the cut in each. He was concerned with his results, but he was able to look at his launch and impact conditions, and the shots he was hitting. Weir felt he was progressing because he felt both his swing and his understanding of it were improving.
Last year Weir used one of his two career money exemptions to play the PGA Tour. A player gets one such exemption for being in the top 50 career earners and another for being in the top 25. He used the latter and made nine cuts in 22 tournaments. That was a definite improvement, obviously. I watched Weir hit every shot in the second round of the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey, when he shot 67, and that was with bogeys on his last two holes. I didn't see much difference that round from when he was at his best. He was in full control of his golf ball. He finished T-49 after weekend rounds of 73 and 72, but there was that one strong round.
Weir had more than that one round to help him gain confidence. He had shot 69 in the final round of the U.S. Open in June at difficult Merion Golf Club. Jason Dufner and Hideki Matsuyama had each shot 67. Martin Laird had shot 68. They were the only golfers who scored better than Weir in the last round. He tied for 28th in the championship.
Now it's a new season, one in which Weir is using his other career money exemption and one in which he will need to finish in the top 125 money-winners to maintain his full playing privileges on the PGA Tour. He has no more career money exemptions. He's playing with Davis Love lll and Matsuyama in the first two rounds of the Frys.com Open. Matsuyama is only 21 and played his way onto the International team for the Presidents Cup two weeks ago. Weir wants to get back on the team for the 2015 event. He wants to represent Canada in the Olympics in Rio in 2016.
Nothing has come easily to Weir in golf, not from the start. Is he up to the challenge facing him now? He's accepted the challenge, and even relishes it. Here's what he said in a recent blog:
"Overall, I'd have to say I was pleased with my 2013 year. I improved so much. When you look at where I was a year before, it's like night and day. Having said that, I'm still a long way from where I want to be. I've spent some time with Grant recently as we continue to try and improve, and my focus is really on simplifying things."
I wish him well as he begins his season. Here's hoping Weir provides the comeback story of the year.
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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 email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein