Mike Weir may be the latest Great Canadian Hope in men's golf, but he is not infallible. At the PGA Tour's Greater Vancouver Open in late August, the 27-year-old from Bright's Grove, Ont., had his high hopes dashed on the slick, undulating greens of Northview Golf Club in suburban Surrey. He was confident going in - he had placed fifth at the event last year on the same course, and he had just finished second at the Canadian Professional Golf Association championship the previous week in Markham, Ont., to secure his position as the top money-winner on the Canadian Tour. And Weir, a sweet-swinging lefty, hit the ball beautifully throughout the first two rounds of the GVO. But what should have been a showcase for a rising star was instead a losing battle with a balky putter. "I just had one of the worst putting weeks of my career," Weir said after returning to his home in Draper, Utah. "No matter what I tried, the ball would not go in the hole."
Such is golf, for pros or weekend duffers. The good news for Weir is that he will get another chance to test himself against the best this week in Montreal at the Bell Canadian Open, where organizers have assembled a glittering field that includes Masters winner Tiger Woods, British Open champion Justin Leonard, PGA titlist Davis Love III and two-time champ Greg Norman. For the players, the tree-lined fairways of Royal Montreal Golf Club will be a pleasant change from Glen Abbey, the Royal Canadian Golf Association's home course in Oakville, Ont., which has hosted all but one Open since 1976. "I think it's great we're playing at Royal Montreal," says Weir, who flew in early for extra practice rounds.
But some Canadian pros claim the Open is not open enough because so few of them get to play the event. The Tour restricts the number of exemptions organizers can give to non-PGA Tour members, and Dave Barr of Richmond, B.C., is the only Canadian with a PGA Tour card. As a result, pros such as Ray Stewart of Abbotsford, B.C., and Arden Knoll of Yorkton, Sask., will not be among the 156 who tee up on Sept. 1, and they complain that the GVO treats Canadians better than their "national championship." But the Open's tournament director, Bill Paul, argues home-country pros get two-thirds of the 24 exemptions, based on performance criteria. "We want to provide opportunities for Canadians," he said, "but exemptions are not just automatic handouts."
With Barr sidelined following back surgery, Canada's hopes will ride on another Richmond resident, Dick Zokol, fresh off a strong performance at the GVO, and such far-flung pros as Glen Hnatiuk of Selkirk, Man., ranked fifth on the U.S. Nike Tour, and Rick Gibson of Calgary, who competes in Japan. "There are a lot of great Canadian players around the world," Weir says. "They're just not playing the PGA Tour."
But the modest, well-spoken Weir is the only twentysomething with a legitimate shot. He is playing with great confidence, he says, because his swing has stood up under the pressure of close competition all season. He leads the Canadian Tour with earnings of more than $80,000 - double that of runner-up Ray Freeman of Lexington, N.C. - despite playing only seven of 10 tournaments. Weir's stated goal is to be the best player in the country, and longtime observers think he stands a good chance of succeeding, as much for his mental toughness and competitive spirit as for his shot-making. "You could see that it hurt him very badly to miss the cut at the GVO - he expects a lot of himself," says writer and broadcaster Lorne Rubenstein, who has covered golf for 25 years. "There's something special about him, a little of the fire that George Knudson had." Weir appreciates the comparison - Knudson was the country's most-decorated golfer. "I am working very hard on every aspect of my game," he says.
Weir knows he has chosen a career that can be more capricious than lucrative. He failed in five straight trips to so-called qualifying school - the gut-wrenching series of tournaments from which the PGA Tour annually selected 40 members from more than 1,000 entrants. Despite the setbacks, he persists in thinking he will earn his card. In fact, he and his wife, Bricia, bought their home in Draper partly because nearby Salt Lake City is a hub for Delta, the PGA Tour's main airline partner. From there, he plans to head off to Q school again this fall - that is, unless he wins the Canadian Open, which would automatically win him his Tour card. Weir is not counting on that, but he is not ruling it out, either. "I am totally motivated to play among the best," he says. "I want to win, and that's it."
Maclean's September 8, 1997