June 25, 2007

Canada says Weir No. 1 after Mike scores in OT

It figured that if a man was ever going to win a Masters in a mudslide by playing 30 holes one day, 24 holes another day and 19 holes the third day, and do all this while a comedy troupe was down the street performing a play titled "The Burk Stops Here," it would be a left-handed Canadian.

But what else should anyone have expected in a dyspeptic week such as this one in April? A week in which golf and Canada's Mike Weir were barely squeezed in between irksome rain and silly protest?

Nobody saw anything but rain from Monday until Friday, and nobody saw Martha Burk's protest against chairman William (Hootie) Johnson and Augusta National's all-male membership on Saturday unless they looked very quickly — and beyond the media mass and such loons as the Elvis impersonator who, incidentally, only wanted a ticket to the tournament. Which was one reason Hootie scored a 9-and-8 victory over Martha. All in all, the demonstrations lasted about an hour, after which everyone turned their attention back to golf, without commercial interruption.

But it was back to Mike Weir golf, not Tiger Woods golf. Mike Weir played good golf, smart golf, Hogan golf. Canada's new national sports hero played the best golf of the week and deserved to win, which he eventually did in that sudden-death playoff, even with an over-anxious three-putt bogey. His only bogey of the day, by the way.

Weir, now ranked fifth in the world behind Tiger, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, hit fairways and greens throughout the wet, muddy week and never met a four-, five- or six-footer for par that he didn't like. This wasn't the deer in the headlights who missed everything while shooting 80 in the final group with Tiger in the PGA four years ago. "I made literally all my putts inside of eight feet today," he said. When's the last time you could say that about your own game?

After rain wiped out play on Thursday, Weir's steady rounds of 70-68 through the wettest part of the tournament gave him the 36-hole lead. His third-round 75 included a couple of his only mistakes. It put him two strokes behind leader Jeff Maggert, who was less than 24 hours from a two-hole meltdown. But Weir's 68 on Sunday was a study in control, authority, good thinking.

Mike's Sunday round slowly caught him up with the surprising Sunday intruder, Len Mattiace, whose ball continually couldn't get out of the way of the cup. He was shooting a seven-under 65. Mattiace wasn't Jack Fleck, Orville Moody or Sam Parks Jr. where majors are concerned, but he was in the neighborhood: only two wins in 12 years on and off the tour, though both came last year.

It looked like three wins until Weir's lay-up birdie at the 15th hole, the result of a crisp, 91-yard wedge shot that grew teeth four feet from the flag. Just as solidly, Weir parred the last three holes, forcing the playoff with a six-footer you wouldn't want for a $2 nassau, much less the Masters.

The playoff occurred because Mattiace didn't quite finish business. He'd chipped in for a birdie at the eighth hole and made a Crenshaw-like monster birdie putt at the 10th — what would he have given for that a couple of hours later? — before eagling the 13th, birdieing the 15th and hitting it snug at 16. He was eight under for the day as he stood on the 18th tee, a par away from matching Gary Player's 64 from 25 years ago as the best final round by a Masters winner.

Well, Len has an excuse. The poor guy was playing his first Masters since he was a junior at Wake Forest. After slicing his tee ball into the trees at 18, he pitched out and barely sneaked a six-foot bogey putt in the side door.

In the playoff, back at 10, Mattiace's drive was OK, but he hooked his approach down a slope and behind a pine. He pitched back onto the green some 30 feet away, and then almost putted it off the green before gunning it long again.

Weir, who had driven to the same spot, played a splendid iron onto the green before sliding his first putt eight feet past, leaving him with two putts for victory. There is, of course, no happier way to win your first major than with a tap-in.

So much for Augusta National rewarding no one but long hitters. Weir, 100th on tour in driving distance last year, averaged 271.2 yards off the tee during the week but let it out to 290 now and then while finishing with a total of seven-under 281, the highest total by a winner in 14 years. But only three players took fewer putts, so stat that.

Weir is now the greatest golfer in the history of the Northwest Mounted Police and the most popular athlete in his country since Wayne Gretzky, which brings to mind the words of Bernhard Langer when he was asked some years back to name the greatest German golfer of all time.

"It is I," he said.

It's probably all over town by now that Weir, only 5-feet-9 and 155 pounds, has beaten out Mickelson for Best Left-Hander in Golf. Weir, 32, who won for the third time this year, is the only left-hander other than Bob Charles of New Zealand to win a major, and Charles did it 40 years ago in the British Open.

It figures that a Canadian would bring glory back to the lefties: We're told that three out of 10 players in Hockey Land go at it from the left side because that's the way so many learned to slap at a puck. "This was an important win for me," said Weir, who plays some quality hockey himself. "I may play golf left-handed, but when I'm out there I'm just a golfer. "

And when Weir's just a writer, he does it right-handed. Mattiace, on the other hand, is a lefty who plays golf righty. You figure it out. Anyway, a wise guy might say there were more lefties on the leader board than there were on Martha Burk's bus.

Mickelson, runner-up in the Lefty Flight, finished third at Augusta for the third year in a row, which gave him a chance to talk again about how pleased he was with himself. A headline in The Augusta Chronicle said, "Mickelson sees no defeat in third place." One wondered if Martha wrote it.

You don't have to wonder about what it is in Mickelson's game that keeps making him come up short in majors. Somewhere along the way Phil's big, loose swing is always going to loop one off the continent. Here's one sample of the Phil Formula: a drive Sunday into an unplayable lie at the par-5 second. After a penalty drop, he hit a cut driver off the pine straw onto the green and dropped a 90-footer for 4. Routine birdie.

Mickelson didn't lose this Masters the way Jeff Maggert did. Maggert lost it on Sunday with a 7 at the third hole, a triple bogey, and an 8 at the 12th, a five-over unprintable. Give him pars on those two holes and Maggert, a former Texas AM Aggie, wins by three strokes with a 278.

Maggert turned himself into an Aggie joke at the third hole when he tried to hit his second shot out of a fairway bunker. He's a low-ball hitter anyhow, and perhaps he should have dwelled on that before he swung. The ball hit the shaved lip and bounced right back into his chest. Two-shot penalty. It's a somewhat incredible footnote that Maggert sank a 15-foot putt for his triple.

But a question remained: How many Aggies does it take to get hit in the chest with their own golf ball? Answer: 12 — one to get hit in the chest and 11 to lose a football game to the University of Texas.

Much to his credit, Maggert rallied and was just one off the lead when he flew the 12th green and found himself in another evil bunker. Jeff slashed at the sand and sent a low skidder racing across the green and into Rae's Creek. He took a drop and despondently pitched into the water again. Then he pitched on and two-putted for the quintuple-bogey 8, which sounded a little too familiar to Mattiace, who visited the water twice at Sawgrass' par-3 17th to make 8 while contending at the '98 Players. Maggert did summon a sense of humor after his round. "My scorecard looks more like a phone number," he said.

But Jeff had shown us something at the the third and 12th, hadn't he? Talk about a bunker buster. Operation Iraqi Freedom might have ended even sooner if we'd dropped Maggert on Baghdad.

Not a lot of humor in Tiger Woods' week. No one had seen him play quite as shoddily in a major, all through the bag, since he'd first become a pro. And no one could explain it — he'd arrived with three victories behind him this season, and everybody in the field had practically given him the green jacket, which would have been his fourth in seven years, matching Arnold Palmer back when Arnold made winning a green jacket an every-other-year thing.

Arnold, returning to play after the age limit for former champions was rescinded, shot a pair of 83s at age 73 in his 49th Masters. Jack Nicklaus, a decade younger and playing at Augusta for the 43rd time, opened with an 85 that was his worst score on tour in 45 years and 2,235 rounds. After the second round was completed early Saturday, Jack found himself joined by Player, Seve Ballesteros and David Duval at 162 — only 33 pro majors in that little foursome.

They missed the cut by 13 strokes, but three amateurs made it. U.S. Amateur champ Ricky Barnes played with Tiger the first two days and beat him by six strokes over 36 before finishing 21st, a stroke out of Tiger's tie for 15th. Ricky averaged almost 289 yards off the tee and doesn't get cheated when he takes a swing at it.

As for Tiger, the fact is, from an opening 76 to a closing 75 he drove poorly, chipped even worse and had to make a three-footer for a sand save just to make the cut. The shot at a record third straight green jacket could have ended right there.

To top it off, Tiger blamed Steve Williams, his caddie, for the double bogey at the third hole on Sunday that ended his chances. The tee was moved up maybe 30 yards on the tricky little par 4, turning it into a come-hither 320-yarder.

"Stevie talked me into hitting the driver," Tiger said.

Tiger wanted to go with an iron, but he hit the driver, found the trees and ended up with the disastrous double.

It probably should be said that while Tiger's caddie recommended the driver, he didn't swing the club. It should also be said that the contrasting performances of Tiger Woods and Mike Weir have left us with two interesting questions. Is this the start of a lull in the majors for Tiger? And has Weir brought short-hitting style points back to the game of golf?