Winning a national championship for your country is always tough, but when the fans cheer so loud you temporarily go deaf and an overly affectionate fan grabs you around the neck mid-round, well, that’s really tough.
In trying to win the Bell Canadian Open, native son Mike Weir carried the hopes of a nation on his slim shoulders.
In the end, it may have been too much to bear; Vijay Singh patiently bided his time as Weir unraveled down the stretch, then Singh won a three-hole playoff to break the hearts of about 25,000 fans at Glen Abbey Golf Club and millions of Canadians watching on television at home.
It was there for the taking for Weir, but he struggled with his emotions and his putting stroke, losing a three-shot lead with eight holes remaining with three bogeys. Three times he faced putts that would have clinched his most coveted title, but he missed each one to groans from the fans.
The stars seemed aligned in Weir’s favor; he took a three-stroke lead into the final round on the 50th anniversary of the last Canadian Open victory by a native son, Pat Fletcher in 1954. It also was the centennial celebration of the event, the world’s third-oldest national championship.
With the Sept. 4 death of Canadian legend Moe Norman, whom Weir honored with a black pin bearing the late ball-striker’s name on his hat, this tournament was red and white all over – from Maple Leafs flags in the galleries to the sporadic singing of the national anthem and exhortations of “C’mon Mikey, win this one for Canada!”
For the fans, this Open seemed destined to be won by their golf icon – Weir’s Masters victory catapulted him to superstardom in Canada. As if the story line wasn’t gripping enough, it came down to a battle that pitted No. 1 in Canadian hearts against the newly minted No. 1 in the world.
Ultimately, the pressure and Singh appeared to grind Weir down to make the Canadian dream go poof.
“They (the crowd) weren’t cheering against me, but for Mike,” said Singh, adding that coming from behind was an edge. “I hope they didn’t get to him, but in my mind they must have affected him. I really do feel for Mike.”
It’s fair to say no Canadian golfer has ever faced such pressure. Fans were 10-deep around many tees and so loud that Weir said, “I was literally deaf, just being screamed at. I had to open my mouth to pop my ears.”
The support got out of hand after Weir made birdie on No. 10 and an “overly exuberant” fan, said one tournament official, clasped him around the neck and back.
“The guy grabbed me pretty hard. That was unfortunate,” said Weir, who pulled his next tee shot. A security guard spoke to the fan, who left the course on his own.
Asked if it was tougher for a Canadian to win this tournament than a major championship, Weir said, “It’s way tougher, much tougher. Every shot is magnified. You’re getting yelled at constantly nonstop.”
Weir, who won the Nissan Open earlier this season for his seventh PGA Tour victory, said he tried to draw on his success from last season’s Masters.
“But for whatever reason, I couldn’t gather my emotions like I normally do,” said Weir, who closed with a 1-over-par 72. “I think maybe in the end, I was trying too hard. This is a tough one, no doubt about it.”
Singh looked positively relaxed in comparison, hitting precision irons and mammoth tee shots in winning – remarkably – his seventh PGA Tour event of the year, and his fourth in his last five starts. In his first event since wrestling the No. 1 world ranking from Tiger Woods at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Singh wasn’t his best but he overcame mistakes and just kept coming at Weir.
Singh followed his 68-66 in the first two rounds with an erratic 72 Saturday that included his second triple bogey of the week on No. 11. His 69 Sunday, however, was a model of steadiness that included a birdie on No. 18 for a 9-under total of 275 on the remodeled, par-71 Glen Abbey layout, which played difficult with high rough.
Singh birdied the final hole to tie Weir as the Canadian approached the 18th green to cheers louder than anyone could recall at a Canadian golf event.
Weir had an 8-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to win, but missed to force a playoff. On the first playoff hole on 18, Weir’s 25-foot eagle putt for the victory slipped by. On the second extra hole, Weir had a 4-footer for par and the triumph but missed and left the green with his cap pulled over his eyes.
After Weir rinsed his third shot to 18 on the third extra hole, Singh two-putted for par and the victory.
As disappointed fans headed out, Canadian hopes turned to the World Cup of Hockey championship game on Sept. 14, when Canada took on Finland for the title. At least in hockey, players expect contact.