2003: The Masters - Weir weathers weird week

Augusta, Ga.

Turned out to be a Weir Masters. And a weird Masters, start to finish. ’Twas a week when Augusta, Ga., was colder than Augusta, Maine. When sluggers didn’t dominate in the mud as preordained. When three-peat challenger Tiger Woods yo-yoed and teased and chipped like a 20-handicapper. When protests down the street resembled a small county fair Freak Show. When, on Sunday, the leader hit his chest with a shot and the winners of the last three Masters swung opposite-handed.

When ultimately left was right and a playoff bogey was good and the winner was the little lefty instead of the big, heralded, majorless one.

A playoff nobody seemed to want to win, that a noncompeting marker might have won, was the apropos ending to this Psycho Masters. Mike Weir three-putts for bogey to win on the first sudden-death hole against 65-shooter Len Mattiace and, of course, goes down as the first Masters champion in 46 years with a bogey-free final round. Moral: Save that three-jack hiccup for the opportune time.

A Canadian had never won a major golf championship and no left-hander besides 1963 British Open champion Bob Charles had ever won one. But Weir broke down both barriers in winning his third 2003 tournament by mid-April after no top 10s the prior year. Next thing anybody knew, he was slipping a 42 Regular green jacket on his 155-pound body and receiving a telephone call from Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was in the Dominican Republic.

Turns out Chretien and his wife were jumping up and down while watching the telecast with the Dominican president. Whether that little skirmish known as the U.S. attack on Iraq lit up another TV screen is unknown.

Which brings us to Weir’s own boob tube. He also figures to be the first major champion to have watched the movie “Happy Gilmore” before teeing off Sunday, though it must be noted that he didn’t come out with a lurching swing like either Adam Sandler or Tom Lehman. “I don’t know about (getting) inspiration,” Weir said of the flick, “but I got a good laugh.”

He also preserved a curious trend. For the 13th consecutive year the winner has come out of the final twosome. For all that talk about this tournament starting on the back nine Sunday, the Masters, pure and simple, is for 54-hole front-runners. The happy moral of all this for Weir: He who laughs first and tees off last finishes first and laughs last.

Others weren’t as fortunate. Inclement weather wreaked havoc on everyone – players, officials, fans. More than 4 inches of rain fell, washing out Monday’s practice round and pushing the first round from Thursday, when temperatures in International Falls, Minn., were higher than here, to Friday. And for the first time in forever, Sam Snead wasn’t around to help pass the idle time with his yarns of yore.

The bizarre beat on once play finally began on soggy turf that caused balls to actually sink into the shallow “first cut” rough and, some said, made Augusta National play about 7,600 yards. Jack Nicklaus took 41 putts in opening with 85, his highest score in 2,236 Tour starts. Arnold Palmer, 73, spotted his longtime rival 10 years but beat him by two strokes. Bernhard Langer missed his first cut here since Ronald Reagan’s second year in the White House. Slumping Jose Maria Olazabal tied for eighth despite having shot 77 or higher in each of his last five Tour starts. And no one shot four rounds at par or better for the first time in two decades.

World No. 2 Ernie Els and David Duval, once a regular contender in these parts, both opened with 79 before taking divergent paths – Els tied for sixth and Duval had the weekend free for fishing or snowboarding after a once-unthinkable 83. Now plagued by wild driving and sagging confidence, the free-falling Duval beat only five players in the 93-man field and tied washed-up Seve Ballesteros and sixtysomethings Gary Player and Nicklaus. But there was good news for him Friday in Amen Corner, where he double-bogeyed 12 but picked up a future brother-in-law when his sister was proposed to.

Woods, trying to become the first to win three consecutive Masters, by himself offered enough for a Believe-It-Or-Not paperback. In Round 1 he was beaten head-to-head by an amateur (blond matinee idol Ricky Barnes) by seven strokes (69 to 76). Then he got up-and-down from a bunker to make the 36-hole cut on the number (5-over-par 149), assuring his 102nd consecutive PGA Tour-sanctioned event in the money, 11 off Byron Nelson’s record. Then on Saturday Woods passed about as many people as attended the protests down Washington Road. Teeing off the same time as the leaders but on No. 10, he shot a third-round 66 and zoomed from tied for 43rd and 11 strokes back to tied for fifth and four strokes behind leader Jeff Maggert.

Weir had been six strokes ahead of seven players when he birdied No. 2 in that third round. But he ended the day two shots behind Maggert, who putted only 21 times and birdied five of the last six holes for a 66.

The Woods and Maggert charges overshadowed the Saturday protests – centered on the club’s all-male membership – in a 5.1-acre site a couple of blocks from the course. Maybe 60 people representing roughly a half-dozen small protest groups gathered, most notably Martha Burk and her small band of National Council of Women’s Organizations followers. As it happened, more news media, police and police cars than protesters were present.

The continuation of Burk’s 10-month crusade against the National’s so-called discrimination against women did little to disrupt the tournament. And club chairman Hootie Johnson had made it clear on Masters Wednesday that the National had no intention of admitting a female member anytime soon. Among other things, he suggested Woods butt out with his opinions on club operation, said same-gender organizations like “sewing circles” are an important part of society and maintained the club’s position wouldn’t change if he dropped dead on the spot.

That’s not to say the street scene wasn’t entertaining. Speaking on a platform next to a large inflated pink pig inscribed “Augusta National Corporate Pig’s Club,” Burk said women would avoid purchasing anything from companies headed by National members. “Hootie” caps sold for $25. One sign said: “College: $80,000. Law School: $124,000. Busting up the old boys club: Priceless.” A man in a tuxedo held a “Formal Protest” sign. Another man held up a painting depicting Anna Nicole Smith playing at the National. A North Carolina farmer wore a “Golf Is Vile” T-shirt. And an Elvis Presley impersonator said he was protesting the fact Palmer is known as The King.

By late Saturday, Woods was the focus. He was four back but it seemed everybody else was chasing him. Though he has won his eight major titles after leading through 54 holes, the sense was he would rally for this one and grab history. The feeling grew early Sunday when he birdied the par-5 second and pulled to within three shots of first.

But then he admittedly erred by taking his caddie’s advice to use a driver instead of an iron on No. 3. He found himself in trees right, near an azalea bush. He turned over an iron and hit a marvelous left-handed punch in front of the green, but then he “semi-bladed” a chip over the green, hit a poor chip on and made double bogey.

“I just didn’t have the feel for chipping today,” he said. “It was very reminiscent of the first day (when he opened the tournament by chipping in for bogey after two poor chips).”

Three bogeys would put him 5 over on Nos. 3-8 en route to his third front-nine 39 of the week. “It was just one of those weeks where I couldn’t really get anything going for an extended period of time,” Woods said after tying for 15th, nine shots back. “I just didn’t drive it consistently enough or shape the ball correctly enough.”

He didn’t suffer alone. Maggert also found the third to be 350 yards of hell, a place where hearts are pierced. The Texan led by one until his thin sand-wedge approach from the left fairway bunker hit the high lip and bounced back off his chest. Two-shot penalty, triple bogey. He would fall out of contention for good at the par-3 12th when he rinsed two balls – from a rear bunker and the drop area – and made a quintuple-bogey 8.

“I’ve never played this well and made two big numbers,” said Maggert, who finished five shots back in fifth. “To have it happen twice is a bit strange.”

Like Woods, 2000 Masters champ Vijay Singh went southpaw. He was only three behind when he hit a left-handed shot off the creek’s bank on the left of 13 en route to bogey and a tie for sixth.

Left-hander Phil Mickelson had the look of a champion when he made a 90-foot birdie putt after driving into the left hazard on No. 2. But the man ranked third in the world finished third for the third consecutive Masters, and for the fourth time overall, after his best Masters final round (68). Forgot about Davis Love III or Charles Howell III. How about Phil Mickelson The Third?

“You can’t look at success by winning and losing tournaments,” Mickelson said after his 17th top 10 in a major without victory. “I felt it was a successful day even though in terms of wins and losses it was a loss.”

As it happened, lefties finished first and third, and in between was a guy, Mattiace, who does about everything left-handed – eat, write, kick – except play golf. It paid to be ambidextrous, if not amphibious, at this wet Masters, for Weir writes and plays tennis right-handed. “I’m mixed up,” Weir said. At 13, he thought about playing golf right-handed, until Nicklaus answered his inquiry and advised him to stick with his natural swing. Today you can find the Golden Bear’s letter framed in Weir’s home office.

Weir had never finished better than tied for 10th in a major, that coming after he blew a 54-hole lead with a final-round 80 at the 1999 PGA. But after his disappointing ’02, Weir worked with a shrink, a trainer, a swing coach and decided he needed to have fun on the course. It helped, too, that late last year he reverted to his swing trigger, a waist-high waggle, which started as a drill designed to aid him in setting the club. “My security under pressure,” he calls it.

In short order, he won the Bob Hope and Nissan events, laying up on the last hole of both. And King Layup would pull even with Mattiace here thanks to a 4-foot birdie after hitting short of water from left rough at the par-5 15th.

Mattiace had never finished better than 24th in six previous majors, and he was playing in his first Masters as a professional. His first two Tour victories didn’t come until last year, at age 34. He came in ranked 57th in the world. But here he was, seizing control with a spectacular short game. He chipped in for birdie at 8, made a 60-footer at 10, went one up on Weir with a 15-foot eagle at 13 and went two ahead after making 2- and 8-foot birdie putts at 15 and 16, respectively. Finally, he closed at 7-under 281 by salvaging bogey at 18 on a 6-footer after driving into trees right.

“I was hitting on all cylinders,” Mattiace said after breaking down in tears several times. “This is the most special I’ve ever felt. It all came together.”

Except in the playoff. Weir forced it largely because of a 15-foot birdie putt at 15 and a “gut-wrenching” 7-foot par save at 18. For the round, Weir made seven putts of 4 feet or longer. Like Mattiace, he had only one three-putt green for the week. Both finished in the top seven in putting but neither cracked the top 31 in driving distance.

“That’s probably the best I’ve ever putted,” Weir said after his sixth victory, all from behind in the last round. “Definitely from inside 10 feet.”

Turns out he didn’t need more blade mastery in the first Masters playoff since 1990. After waiting for Weir to finish the final three holes, Mattiace hooked his 6-iron approach off a hanging lie on the extra hole, the 495-yard 10th. Behind a pine tree, he chipped on to 30 feet, putted downhill 20 feet by, then went 5 feet by on his fifth shot. That enabled Weir to win despite missing an 8-foot par putt.

And so it was Weir at the forefront. Right there with weird.

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