Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mike Weir turns up the heat at the Nissan

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National Post columnist Cam Cole is in California this week to watch Mike Weir attempt his three-peat at Riviera. His column is below. Dave Perkins at the Toronto Star also wrote about Weir -- you can find his column here.
Weir's putting seems to have come along -- and if he'd made anything on Sunday on Pebble's notoriously lumpy greens, then he'd have given Mickelson a go.
One thing that impresses is the amount of time Weir is spending on the course these days. That could be an indication that we'll see the success Weir experienced in 2003, as opposed to the off-season that was 2004.


Weir tinkers to again reach the pinnacle
Seeks third straight victory in L.A.'s Nissan Open

Cam Cole
National Post

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - Among the many thousands of ways in which Mike Weir differs from the average golfer is this: if, on some glorious day when the planets were all aligned, you or I ever managed to hit every single fairway off the tee in any nine-hole portion of a round of golf, we would be afraid to breathe for fear of disturbing whatever celestial power had taken possession of our bodies for this one, brief, shining moment.

"Whatever caused this," we would say to ourselves, "don't jinx it. Don't go for the beer after nine. Don't have the hot dog, it could throw your centre of gravity off. Don't take practice swings. And whatever you do, don't ask why. Just swing the club."

Whereas our man Weir, after hitting 100% of the fairways on Sunday at Pebble Beach and shooting a final-round 67 to put an actual quiver in Phil Mickelson -- a man he had trailed by 10 shots after the third round of the AT&T National Pro-Am -- spent 90 minutes yesterday with his coach Mike Wilson on the range at the Riviera Country Club.

He sent caddie Brennan Little into the TaylorMade trailer with wedges and driver to be tweaked. He worked on grip and posture, setup and alignment, examined his club position and hand action, went through the bag from wedge through the irons to the woods and back down again, and then hit a few more drivers. And a few more wedges. And took a couple of whacks with a rescue club.

And three Canadian scribes stood to one side, scratching their heads at this inexplicable desire to fix what clearly not only wasn't broken, but was working like a Swiss timepiece.

Why mess with success?

"Oh, that?" Weir said later. "No, we were not mechanical there at all. It was just, 'Mike, how's my grip look?' 'Looks great.' 'How's this?' 'Looks great.' It's just reinforcing all the stuff we worked on in the off-season, and he's honest enough to tell me if my shoulder's a little open, or my fundamentals get a little off. But I'm going through a routine on every shot [on the range], so I'm keeping my mind on shaping the ball, and that's important right now."

The 34-year-old from Bright's Grove, Ont., got close enough last week, with the final day's best score by three strokes, to make his pursuit this week of an unprecedented third consecutive Nissan Open title a realistic goal.

Apart from the US$572,400 he earned for finishing second to that other lefty -- vaulting him into eighth place on the 2005 PGA Tour money list, sixth in the world ranking and (unbelievably) 14th place in career earnings with US$16.3-million -- the way Weir hit the ball at Pebble was the stuff of dreams.

"That was as good as it's been in a long time, in that weather, hitting every fairway and all but one or two greens -- it's been a while since I've been in that kind of control, and that's what I've been working for this whole off-season," said Weir, who's had but a handful of rounds when his ball-striking was so sublime -- the second round of his first Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1999, maybe, when he carved out a 71 in horrible conditions to make the cut ... the final round of the 2003 Bob Hope, when he hit every fairway and won ... the final round of the AT&T, two weeks later, when he nearly beat Davis Love III ...

This time, if he had made a couple of putts at crucial points Sunday, he might have done the unthinkable and reeled in Mickelson.

"If that putt goes on 12 ... you never know," he mused. "It might have made a couple of those up-and-downs he made a little more interesting.

"Your mindset is so different when you have a big lead like he had, you're going out in tough conditions thinking, just shoot par and no one's going to catch me. But I could have easily been 62, and then he's thinking: 'How the heck did that happen?' It's like two years ago, I was seven behind [Charles Howell] and won. And Davis, he was eight behind after the third round in 2001 or '02 at Pebble, and by the turn he was tied for the lead."

He might have mentioned last year, at this very course, when his seven-stroke lead on Saturday night had turned into zero by the 16th tee on Sunday, before he gathered himself to beat Shigeki Maruyama in a nail-biter.

What a sweet comeback it would have been for Weir at Pebble, if he had caught Mickelson, with whom he has had a not altogether civil (well, by golf's gentlemanly standards) relationship.

"I definitely wanted to be in that last group, I was a little disappointed I didn't make a few things happen on the last nine on Saturday to get into the final group," he said. "I definitely would have liked to have been there to see how he reacted when I made a few birdies."

Weir worked hard to recover from a so-so 2004, and the results have been slow in coming.

"I went down to the desert [Palm Springs] to work with Mike almost every week, down on Monday morning, back [to his home in Draper, Utah] on Wednesday night," he said. "And then I'd go to this local driving range, with heated bays, and hit it out into the snow when I was home -- you know, put the tokens in the machine, fill the bucket up with stripers [range balls] -- and then the other days I spent skiing and spending time with the family, so it was a good balance."

The payoff, perhaps, only arrived last week. Though he is in the fourth week of playing six tournaments in a row -- the Accenture Match Play is next week, followed by the Ford Championship at Doral before he takes a break -- he said he still feels reasonably fresh. The greens at Riviera are small with Poa annua grass (or weeds, actually), like those at Pebble Beach, and tend to get spiked up and unpredictably grainy.

"I've always putted Pebble pretty well and obviously putted well here. Maybe I'm good on bumpy surfaces, who knows. It's like putting spring greens in Canada, after the snow melts and the putts are bouncing all over the place."

And every day on the range, when he's hitting it this well, gives a little more confidence.

Yesterday, he seemed to be aiming at posts in the tall wire-mesh fence that surrounds the Riviera range, and pinged more than a few off the wooden poles -- much as he did on that Sunday morning at Augusta two years ago, after which he went out and won the Masters.

Weir hasn't won since his victory here. Not even Ben Hogan, who won three times at Riviera -- the L.A. Open twice and the 1948 U.S. Open -- has done three in a row.

"I feel like my game's in good shape to do it again. This would obviously be a special place to do it, to get a win under my belt, get some momentum going and get after Tiger and Vijay and Ernie."

And Phil. Don't forget Phil.

"Oh," said Weir, with a wry little chuckle. "Yeah."

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