On the mend: Weir, Hart back at Pebble
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – If ever there’s the urge to answer the call to come back, why not here, where as precious a piece of American real estate comes to rest against the overwhelming majesty of the Pacific.
If ever one could put behind them whatever sore spots plague them, strolls around Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey Peninsula, and Spyglass Hill will do the trick. Especially when sun and warmth come pouring forth as they did in Thursday’s opening round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
But the fact is, once Mike Weir and Dudley Hart move beyond the ambiance and the aura, there is a cold reality that confronts them.
They are on the comeback trail and that is a daunting task when the boundaries are within the PGA Tour, where annually younger, stronger, better, and healthier competition rushes in more furiously than those Pacific waves to the left of Pebble’s 18th hole.
“I can beat my buddies at home, but it's a little different out here,” said Hart, 43, who has been sidelined with chronic back problems since his last PGA Tour start, at Colonial in May of 2009.
Check that, he did compete one other time, but a trip Down Under for the 2010 Australian Open caused great pain and he withdrew. But from 2007-09, Hart played in just 47 PGA Tour tournaments, so clearly we’re talking serious pain here.
“It’s been a struggle, to say the least. I had fusion on my lower back, my L5-S1, and playing multiple days in a row is kind of important when yo do what I want to do.”
Weir’s ailment – he had surgery on the extensor tendon of his right elbow – may not match Hart’s for severity, but the challenge that confronts him is every bit as demanding. Having tried to play through pain in 2010, Weir struggled and slumped to 151st on the money list after 11 consecutive seasons within the top 80. Last year, Weir had to call off his comeback after 15 tournaments and just $23,312. Pushed into rehab mode, the 2003 Masters champ and eight-time winner is committed to a determined quest, though he suffered a stunning setback earlier this week when he was denied a sponsor’s exemption into next week’s Northern Trust Open.
That’s right, the tournament where Weir won back-to-back titles denied his request for a spot.
“I’m surprised. I’ve played there (almost) every year (missing only 2002) since 1998. I love Riviera,” said the 41-year-old Weir. But when asked if he understood the way sponsor exemptions were divvied out, the lefthander from Canada showed his diplomatic side, saying only that “it’s a sponsor’s decision.”
Weir didn’t want to wade into debatable waters, but two of the four unrestricted exemptions went to amateurs Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth. Andy Walker, who is an unheralded player at the minitour level, got one, but his category is an annual one, going to a person who furthers diversity in golf. The fourth went to K.T. Kim, ranked 31st in the world.
Hard to argue with one of the two restricted exemptions that went to Fred Couples, whose love affair with Riviera is returned in spades, because it’s hard to argue he won’t be the most popular player in next week’s field. But the second restricted exemption, the one that went to Jason Gore based on a Twitter campaign? Well, it’s dubious, perhaps, but Northern Trust tournament director Mike Bone said “it’s a very complex, complicated matter with a lot of elements that go into it . . . it just didn’t work out for Mike this year.”
Bone conceded he’s been surprised to read some of the reactions to not granting an exemption to Weir, but he doesn’t think people appreciate how difficult this part of the process is.
“It’s just not a matter of picking past winners or young and up-and-coming guys. We got (a huge number) of calls and e-mails for those four or five openings and nearly everyone was a compelling story.”
Putting the Northern Trust issue behind him, Weir toured Monterey Peninsula in level-par 70 in Thursday’s opening round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. While it was only good for a share of 88th place, Weir wore a smile.
“It’s good to be back. I’ve worked hard and the elbow felt good. There’s no pain,” said Weir, who concedes he sometimes second-guesses his decision to play through misery in 2010.
“It’s not the score I wanted, but it was just good to get out there and get the adrenaline going.”
Given that he has only three tournaments in which to try and earn $644,854 and regain non-exempt major medical status, Weir knows he’s going to have scratch and claw for spots. Northern Trust is proof of that, so he’ll tee it up in Mexico in two weeks at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, then hope for positive news from some of the tournament directors on the Florida swing.
“If not, I’ll look at Europe and head there,” Weir said. “I’m ready to play. I just have to stay patient.”
Hart has a bit more wiggle room in his situation; he has 13 tournaments to make $504,284 to extend his major medical status to the end of 2012. He’s off to an encouraging start in that quest, having opened with a 2 under at Pebble Beach, though on a brilliant day for scoring, that leaves him joint 41st.
"I don't feel great, but I've just got to fight through it," Hart said. "I've lost power, not that I had a lot to begin with, but as long as the pain isn't shooting down my leg as it has in the past.
"But I'd trade the 70 for a worst score if I were feeling better, to be honest."
Still, for Hart, like Weir, it’s all about getting back into the swing of things, because through all the back pain and all the surgeries and medical procedures, he’s never lost his passion for the game.
“I’ve had so many hiccups. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I’m trying to hopefully keep this alive for a while and see what happens,” Hart said.
“But I'm sure I'll stay in golf one way or another. That's basically all I know. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I know a little bit about this stuff, and I'll probably stay in it one way or another.”