Weir Celebrates Masters Win
IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT when the post-Masters dinner finally broke up. About 50 Augusta National members treated friends and relatives of the guest of honour, Mike Weir, to grilled veal chops and fresh pompano, accompanied by California cabernets and chardonnays, on Augusta National's own china in the grand old clubhouse. But it wasn't stiff or formal. Club chairman Hootie Johnson made the guests feel at home, said a few nice words about the tournament's low amateur, Ricky Barnes, and then introduced Weir to loud applause. It was a delicious meal in a comfortable setting, just what Weir had hoped it would be. And it was in the same room where, on Masters Sundays in the past, the members had toasted legendary champions such as Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and, three times recently, Tiger Woods. For Weir, it was very cool to be part of that tradition, to be in that company, and to share the experience with his dad, Richard, his brother, Jim, and his wife, Bricia, seated with him at the head table.
Just as Weir appreciates the history of his game, he's a fan of another time-honoured tradition - having a few beers to celebrate a big win. When the dinner ended, he and the others in his group agreed to take the party back to the house they had rented. Trouble was, there wasn't any beer there, and they didn't figure they could find any for sale at that hour. So Weir did something that perhaps only a newly minted Masters champion could get away with: before leaving he raided the fridge at Augusta National. "Yeah, we grabbed a bunch out of there," he says, "and took it back to the house."
He admits this when he's a private-jet ride north of the disapproving glare of the club captain. He's even wearing the Masters green jacket, a loaner until his own is custom-made. The club usually frowns on players taking jackets off the grounds, let alone wearing them at commercial appearances. And we're sitting in the corporate offices of Sears Canada in Toronto, where he's spending The Day After launching a new line of GOLF accessories. But the club said it was OK because the launch is supposed to be more of an autograph session than anything else.
It didn't stay that way. It had been on his schedule for ages, and would have attracted a fair bit of attention even if Weir, with two other PGA Tour wins already this season, had missed the cut at the Masters. But the fact that he'd just become the first Canadian golfer ever to win a men's major championship turned the occasion into a frenzy of media interviews and signings at the company's downtown Toronto store. Although he was operating on maybe an hour of sleep, he still nailed his public duties with the same touch he showed the day before on Augusta's treacherous greens. He was only thrown by the response to his appearance: thousands of fans swarmed the houseware department to line up for his autograph; kids hoisted signs saying "We want to be like Mike"; grown men shouted "We love you Weirsy!" In public. "I never imagined," he says later, "it'd be anything like this."
How could he have? Weir built a rock-solid career by being prepared for every eventuality on the golf course. That, at the very least, was obvious to anyone who watched the Masters. There, in the crushing pressure of a major championship, his game repeatedly stood the test. But nothing he learned in college golf, on far-flung tours, on the practice tee or even in consultation with his sports psychologist, Rich Gordin, could have prepared him for what happened after his historic win. The Masters isn't just a major championship; it's the most-watched tournament in golf, especially by Canadian fans for whom it marks the beginning of the season.
The victory immediately propelled him to a level of global stardom that few individual Canadian athletes have known before. Sprinter Donovan Bailey after his 1996 Olympic triumph is perhaps the most recent parallel, but Weir resonates more intimately here because it's golf. Few Canadians have any clue how Bailey achieved what he did, but Canada has the highest per-capita golf participation rate in the world. Millions agonized over every slippery three-foot putt. Last week's "Weir No. 1" headlines were corny, but the sentiment still rang true.
At the Sears launch, the ever-modest Weir says it's all a great honour. But a lot has happened, and he's had no time to let it all sink in. He brightens visibly when all but one of his public duties are finally over, and he's delighted when his brother, Jim, and a bunch of hometown buddies from Bright's Grove, Ont., turn up to say hi. He joins them until he has to leave for a drop-the-puck appearance at a Toronto-Philadelphia playoff game, after which he's scheduled to fly to Draper, just south of Salt Lake City, where he, Bricia and their two daughters live. There's light at the end of his all-day tunnel. "I'm going to sleep all the way," he says, glassy eyed but still smiling.
Whether he likes it or not, Weir's professional life is about to change. On April 14, the day after the Masters, the Toronto office of the International Management Group was closed so that the entire staff, including Weir's manager, Kevin Albrecht, and agent, Dan Cimoroni, could assist in the festivities. But on April 15, they were back at work, strategizing. "It changes things from a Canadian focus to a global focus, because of what he did on worldwide TV," Albrecht says. "In our business, there's something called the Q rating, which looks at likeability and awareness. He's always been high on the likeability side, but now he's taken the awareness level up, too."
Among other things, winning the Masters spikes Weir's income potential. With his new international profile, his appearance fees for invitation-only Skins Games and the like could climb by 500 per cent, according to some estimates. His current sponsorship deals with Bell Canada and equipment companies TaylorMade and Titleist, among others, immediately increased in value after the Masters because of performance clauses, and when they are renegotiated, they will be longer in term and some will climb to seven figures in value from six. Sources say Cimoroni is considering one more corporate sponsor - the likeliest candidates would come from the automotive or financial services sectors. With revamped endorsements and some adjustments to his playing schedule to include lucrative overseas events, Weir can boost his already sizable off-course income by US$10 million or more over the next five years.
It's no given that he will, though. For one thing, his playing schedule gets complicated. To maintain his high standing on the PGA Tour money list, Weir needs to compete in 20 or more of those tournaments. He's also committed to play in the Presidents Cup team matches in George, South Africa, in November, which could get in the way of playing for Canada at the World Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C., the same month. He'll likely be asked to Tiger Woods's tourney in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and as the Masters champ he gets an automatic invite to the PGA Grand Slam in Hawaii. "Now he's seeing what the Tigers of the world face," Albrecht says. "Scheduling is a jigsaw puzzle and it's difficult to make everything fit."
Adding endorsements, meanwhile, sounds easy, but to earn the huge fees, he'd have to make time for commercial shoots and corporate outings. And Weir covets his time with Bricia and the girls, Elle, 5, and Lily, 3, preferably at their chalet in Sundance, Utah. "For Mike," says Albrecht, "family comes first. Then it's the playing commitments, and after that we'll look at endorsements." He can take that approach because he's already rich, having won more than US$11 million in tournaments the last half-dozen seasons to go with sponsorships and appearance fees. "I've never been in this for the money," he says. What drives him is getting better, to become one of the handful of stars who shine internationally. "He's always wanted to be a world player," Albrecht says, "and I think when the girls get older, you'll probably see him travel abroad more to play."
The statistical measure of Weir's status is the fact that, after Augusta, he topped the 2003 PGA Tour money list with nearly US$3.3 million and was the only player other than Woods to have won three times this year. The intangible measure is that his peers weren't surprised he had the game to win a major, even on a stretched-out Augusta layout that favoured the big hitters. His performance caught the eye of Jack Nicklaus, his boyhood hero. "I don't watch a lot of golf tournaments on TV," Nicklaus told reporters last week. "But I didn't miss a shot of the last 36 holes with Mike playing. What he did was just amazing, because that golf course was obviously not his type of course."
It was amazing, and nerve-racking, too. With so many big names - Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh - starting the final round close to the lead, there was pressure in every single shot, not just on Augusta's famous back nine. Woods appeared set to make a charge but double-bogeyed the third hole and faded. Jeff Maggert, the leader going into the final round, had two bad holes and dropped out of the hunt. And late in the day, journeyman Len Mattiace rode a hot putter into a three-shot lead over Weir after 16 holes. But Mattiace succumbed to nerves on the 18th and made bogey, and that's all Weir, who has come from behind for all of his Tour victories, needed. He holed a clutch birdie putt on the 13th, tied Mattiace with another birdie at 15 after a brilliant wedge onto the green, and then needed only a two-putt par on 18 to force a playoff. But he left his first putt well short, and the six-footer to tie was no gimme in that pressure. "I wouldn't wish that putt on anyone," Weir said afterward. Yet he stroked it firmly into the hole and proceeded to win the green jacket on the first playoff hole.
Shot-by-shot details hardly matter after the fact, but Weir's saving putt on 18 said so much about him. The championship was riding on its outcome, and it would determine how Weir would be remembered by fans and peers. "I had to really gather myself because there was such finality in that putt - if it misses, I'm done," he recalls. "I had a sense that it was career-defining, definitely, but I told myself I wasn't going to let it end there. So I just told myself to not stress too much, to just play it left-centre and firm. And I hit the best putt of the week."
It earned him enormous respect. Weir is only five foot nine and 155 pounds, and he doesn't go out of his way to draw attention to himself, but that putt showed he belonged among the great Masters champions. And in a way, he'd experienced that same putt so many times before. It's what he practised as a boy at Huron Oaks, his club back home near Sarnia. "As a kid, on the practice green, I'd hit a million putts," he said. "And every one was to win the Masters."
Sounds silly, but it was part of how Weir prepared himself. He'd honed his game at Utah's Brigham Young University, worked with Gordin on keeping his positive outlook under pressure, and spent years on lesser circuits in Australia and Canada before finally qualifying for the big U.S.-based Tour for the 1998 season. He contended at the 1999 PGA Championship in Chicago before faltering, then bounced back with a Tour victory in Surrey, B.C., only weeks later. Last winter, after efforts to rework his swing failed - he plummetted in the world rankings and Tour money list - he went back to basics, focussed on his short game, and the results have been spectacular.
Weir is the definition of modest. One interviewer last week told him that people were calling his pal Wayne Gretzky "the Mike Weir of hockey." His reaction: "I don't buy that at all." But in the absence of ego, he's been driven by sheer, practise-'til-your-hands-bleed determination. "I always," he says, "believed that someday, somehow, I'd be wearing this jacket."
It was a promise he kept not only to himself, but also to Bricia, who provided moral support and companionship during years when they struggled to pay the bills. So it was especially sweet that she was there at Augusta to embrace him when the playoff ended and their dreams had come true. "A lot of things ran through my mind when she came onto the green - the times when we didn't have the kids yet and we were travelling together and she was caddying," he says. "We'd pack up our apartment, load the car with a clothes rack in the back, and travel the country playing tournaments. To go from that to wearing a green jacket, well, it's been a long road, and going through it makes this" - he touches his lapel - "all the more satisfying."
The lean years served a purpose. "It's part of the maturing process I needed to go through as a person," he says. "And I needed the time to get better." His progress isn't over. Some guys win majors and their games fall apart because they spend too much time grabbing the easy money. Or they celebrate a little too hard. Not Weir. "I'm definitely going to enjoy it," he says, "but I want to take this a step further. I want to win some more."
His timing is superb. Winning the season's first big event is a relief - "People were beginning to wonder if I'd ever win a major, and it was on my mind a bit." And he's 32: the mid- to late-30s are considered pro golfers' prime years. Standing in the way, though, is Woods, who's still only 27 and has already captured eight majors. Weir is full of admiration and is glad it was Woods, as defending champion, who helped him slip on the green jacket. "I now know what it takes to win one major championship," Weir says, "and the fact that he's been able to maintain such a consistently high level of play, well, I don't think many people really appreciate what he's been able to do."
As the interview is wrapping up, Weir thinks of something that makes him chuckle. "You know, I was playing out there yesterday and it was nerve-racking, for sure," he says, standing by the door. "But I was having fun, too. Butch [caddie Brennan Little, a former pro himself] and I were laughing at how exciting it was. We were looking around, looking at all the people, and saying, 'This is cool! This is what we dreamed about as kids, walking up 18 with a chance to win the Masters.' " Being Weir, he kept control of his emotions and his grip on reality. "I was trying to soak it all in, but at the same time I had to stay focussed and keep it all in perspective," he says. "Win or lose, my family's still going to love me and I'm going to love them. It wasn't life or death; it's only a game." With that, he walks into the next room to join his brother and their pals, and cracks open a beer.
Maclean's April 28, 2003