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Weir And Wonderful Undaunted by the tumult or the pressure of sudden death, Mike Weir showed his steel in winning the Masters

April 21, 2003
April 21, 2003

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April 21, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section

Weir And Wonderful Undaunted by the tumult or the pressure of sudden death, Mike Weir showed his steel in winning the Masters

They came walking down the hill from the 10th tee on Sunday
evening, just the two of them left standing. It was the scene
everyone at Augusta National had been waiting for, through all
the days of rain and rhetoric, through all the cheap talk about
chauvinism and the rights of private clubs and the point of a
bayonet. Here came the two men. One of their lives would soon be
changed forever, and the change would arrive the way every golfer
dreams: with shadows dappling the green and thousands lining the
fairway, in a sudden-death playoff for the Masters championship.
¶ Yet it wasn't exactly what everyone had been waiting for, not
by the longest of shots, because neither of the two men was named
Tiger or Phil, and the events that followed evoked no comparison
with Jack and Arnie in the dusk. No, here were Mike Weir and Len
Mattiace, a Canadian lefty and a 35-year-old journeyman, battling
at the 2003 Masters and still unaware that their grueling
four-round march had one more wicked turn ahead.

This is an article from the April 21, 2003 issue Original Layout

They had hit identical gorgeous drives, but the unraveling began
with their approach shots. Mattiace hooked a six-iron far left.
Weir lofted a six-iron to the front of the green, 45 feet short.
When Mattiace found his ball, he also found a knobby pine
standing between him and history.

You never heard so many people so quiet. Mattiace had missed the
cut in his only other Masters, back in 1988, when he was a
"college stud," as he now says, sure of his future greatness, and
he hadn't once, in the intervening 15 years, had a day nearly as
good as this one. But what came next wasn't pretty: He chopped
the ball out of the rough, past the tree and the pin and 30 more
feet of green. After Weir's birdie putt went six feet beyond the
hole, Mattiace wrenched his par putt wide and 18 feet past the
hole to the fringe, and someone in the crowd muttered, "Three
worst words in golf: still your shot."

Mattiace missed again. Weir slid his next attempt seven inches
wide, which left him with a tap-in for a bogey--and the victory.
No one had ever won a Masters playoff with a bogey, but there it
was, Weir's first of the day. He tapped in and lifted his hands
halfheartedly as the crowd thundered. He walked off the green,
suddenly the champion, suddenly, at 32, a player who matters, and
as he dropped into the front seat of a golf cart, all of Weir's
composure fell away. He looked up and said, "Unbelievable," and
then lowered his face into his hands. A sob escaped, and he
clenched his teeth to stop it from happening again. His father,
Rich, wrapped his arms around his son from the backseat. "That's
all right, Mike," his father said. "Let it all out. It's O.K."

God knows, by then Weir was hardly the only man in need of
comfort. Everyone figured this year's Masters would be a
tournament like no other, but nobody envisioned the mesmerizing
circus that left a course in tatters, an institution in tumult
and the Masters' newest and most reserved champion in
uncontrollable tears. No major ever had a more prohibitive
favorite than Tiger Woods at Augusta this year; not only was he
gunning for his third straight green jacket, but the course's
length (7,290 yards) and condition (soft from days of rain) had
seemingly narrowed the field to the world's No. 1 player and a
shaky handful of others. No one predicted that Weir, who finished
39th (out of 49) in driving distance for the tournament, would
nonetheless wield the driver that clubbed the Masters into
submission. No one dreamed that Weir, who crumbled in the final
round of the 1999 PGA Championship, would recover after Mattiace
snatched the lead with Sunday's out-of-nowhere 65; no one could
foresee that Weir, needing a par on 18 that day to match
Mattiace's seven-under 281, would calmly sink a harrowing
seven-footer, a career-defining putt, to force the playoff.

It was a moment of exquisite pressure. Having reached the green
in two, lying 45 feet away and needing two putts to tie Mattiace,
Weir followed the line laid out for him by the putt of his
playing partner, Jeff Maggert. Once Maggert putted out and walked
off the green, Weir, alone in a sea of people and cameras and the
psychic weight of millions, leaned over his ball. He struck it
short, took the longest walk of his career, then leaned over it
again. The crowd began screaming the moment the ball moved. When
it dropped, Weir looked like he hadn't slept in a week.

"It was just a gut-wrenching day, [with] a lot of comeback putts
that I needed to make and was able to make," Weir said afterward.
"To do that coming down the stretch, knowing what a great score
Len's had today, that's what I'm really proud of. I wouldn't wish
that last putt on 18 on anybody."

And in the end, Weir took it upon himself, just as he has all
season. While everyone else was watching Woods, he quietly and
oh-so-Canadianly won the Nissan Open and the Bob Hope, and by
taking the year's first major in hand (and the top spot on the
Tour's money list, with $3,286,625 in earnings), he politely
announced himself as golf's new man of the moment. While everyone
else was fidgeting over the rain, the course and other things,
the native of Sarnia, Ont., and resident of Draper, Utah, shot a
second-round 68 to take the lead early last Saturday, contained
himself after a nerve-racking three-over 75 in that afternoon's
third round and then stoically played the Masters' first
bogey-free final round by a champion since Doug Ford's in 1957.
When Weir tapped in to finish the playoff, the first man from
north of the border to win a major, it was, quite arguably,
Canada's biggest score since Weir's close friend Wayne Gretzky
met Janet Jones.

"Growing up," Weir said of his days spent pounding frosty balls
into Lake Huron, "I started my golf season on the putting green
of Huron Park, sinking a putt to win the Masters."

That it all actually came to pass, with Weir--not Phil
Mickelson--becoming the first lefthander to win a major in 40
years, seems only fitting. In the long run Woods's collapse on
Sunday or the public scuffle over Augusta's all-male membership
might figure more prominently in golf history. But for this one
day the Masters belonged to two men unknown to the public at
large, and it gave those weary of sexual politics some blessed
relief.

Never before had a Masters opened with Augusta National's image
in such disrepair. For 10 months women's rights activist Martha
Burk had been hacking away at the club's meticulously maintained
veneer; come tournament time she seemed to have even Mother
Nature on her side. A week of relentless rain turned the pristine
grounds into a shoe-sucking bog, forcing the postponement of last
Thursday's opening round and sending groundskeepers scurrying for
their notoriously pungent drying agent. The doors opened on
Friday to crowds eager for a whiff of spring. They were greeted
by the pervasive odor of dung. The 2003 Masters literally stunk.

By the time Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson held his
annual press conference, on April 9, there was no shortage of
columnists and congresswomen revved up by the prospect of making
the club's high-powered membership squirm. By mishandling Burk's
pressure tactics from the beginning, Johnson had allowed her to
frame the debate, diminishing this year's tournament and wreaking
damage to the club's image that will take years to repair.

While the odds are good that the 2003 Masters will be remembered
more for Martha Burk than for Mike Weir, the sideshow can't last
forever. Indeed, by Saturday, when Tiger made a charge and Weir
seemed to lose his grip and Maggert seized the lead, the action
on the golf course had once again become the center of attention.

When Woods teed off for Friday's 36-hole trek, it was clear he'd
been thrown off his game, be it by the weather or the general
messiness surrounding this year's tournament. A pair of ragged
chip shots on the 1st hole forced him to make a 40-foot chip to
save bogey, and having to wait at the tee boxes couldn't have
helped him build the kind of momentum he needed. He came within a
stroke of missing the cut for the first time in 103 tournaments,
but he followed that up with an electrifying 66 that grabbed
everyone's attention and set the stage for Sunday's drama.

Woods's woes returned on the 3rd hole on Sunday, when he
committed the worst strategic error he's ever made in a major.
The previous day's heroics had lifted him from 43rd to fifth on
the leader board, and he yearned to mount another early charge.
After missing an eagle putt on number 2 and having to settle for
birdie, he was overeager and primed for a fall. The tee box at
the par-4 3rd had been moved 20 yards forward on Sunday, leaving
a distance of 330 yards to the hole and tempting Woods to go for
the green. He brought out his driver. The trap sprang shut.
Woods's tee shot flew far right into the trees and pine straw,
coming to rest beside a clump of azaleas and forcing him to punch
out lefthanded, with his clubhead inverted. Within minutes he had
double-bogeyed, dropped to 10th place and kissed all hope for a
third straight Masters goodbye. Afterward he criticized his
caddie, Steve Williams, for encouraging him to hit driver. (He
quickly added, "Ultimately it's the player's call.")

By then Woods was left only to drape this year's green jacket
over Weir's shoulders, tell him "Good job" and smile graciously
as someone else walked away with $1 million. Woods hasn't won a
major in his last three attempts, and it's hardly comforting for
him to know that victories like Weir's can only give heart to
players daunted by his focus and will. This year's amateur
sensation, 22-year-old Arizona senior Ricky Barnes, captivated
Masters purists by outplaying and outdriving Woods on the first
36 holes, then went on to shoot a three-over 291. Weir,
meanwhile, never forgot how Woods maintained his composure to
take that PGA title from him at Medinah in 1999, and he used the
experience to retool his on-course mentality. "Outside the gates,
with the weather and everything, it's been a bit of a hectic
week," Weir said. "But I didn't pay much attention to that. I was
here to play."

So was Mattiace, and he did so beautifully through 72 holes. It
had been 15 years since he was a college junior, playing in the
Masters as an amateur, and until last weekend he seemed destined
to struggle in obscurity. It took Mattiace three years to qualify
for the PGA Tour, and when he finally did, in 1993, he promptly
lost his card for another two. He rejoined the Tour in '96 but
didn't win until last year, when he broke through at Riviera and
Memphis. "I just kept trying my best, trying hard, trying to
improve: just keep going," Mattiace said. "This is a crazy game,
you know?"

Indeed. On Sunday, Mattiace--a natural lefthander, wouldn't you
know?--played the round of his life, passing Maggert, Weir, Vijay
Singh, Woods, Mickelson and Jose Maria Olazabal, completing the
climb from eighth to first with a stunning eagle on the par-5
13th. He emerged from Amen Corner with the course in a headlock,
then tightened his grip by going eight under with back-to-back
birdies on 15 and 16.

Then, as quickly as that mastery had come, it vanished. On 18
Mattiace needed par to all but clinch his victory, but he drove
into the trees on the right, had to punch out and was left with
an 80-yard nine-iron, which he flew to the back of the green. He
stared at 35 feet of green and froze. "It looked like ice to me,"
he said. He left the putt eight feet short, and his bogey dropped
him back to seven under. Weir, three holes behind, immediately
countered with a birdie on 15 to tie, then polished off that
seven-footer on 18 to force the playoff. Two shots later Mattiace
was finished.

While Weir was getting acclimated to the idea of himself as
Masters champion, Mattiace, despondent, was left to ride away in
a cart, a second-place finisher who'd had his chance and may
never come this close again.

When he first tried to talk about it, Mattiace paused. Then he
broke. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he spoke. "I would like to
have done this 12 years ago," he said. "But it was worth the
wait."

After speaking to the press, Mattiace climbed back into the golf
cart, and two Augusta National trash collectors approached.
"Congratulations, man," one of them said, as Mattiace's cart sped
away. Then the trash collector turned to his partner and said,
"What was his name?"

By then, though, Mattiace was on his way to catching up with his
family. This Masters left many scars, but he has endured more
losing, more dents in his pride, than Martha or Hootie or any of
his fellow competitors who took hard blows last week. He knows
how to recover. The instant Mattiace saw his wife, Kristen, and
two daughters standing in the dying light at the edge of the
clubhouse, they all fell into familiar roles. Five-year old
Gracee singsonged, "I know you didn't win, Daddy, but first is
worst and second is best." Mattiace hugged and kissed her and
chimed in, "Second is best," and suddenly, losing at Augusta
didn't seem so terrible.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [COVER] A Star Is Born Mike Weir Wins The Masters BY S.L. PRICECOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS VICTORY TAP Weir's seven-inch putt on the first hole of sudden death made him master of all he surveyed.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER MASTERS BLASTER Weir's drives were on the short side, but he made up for it with his uncanny ability to save par.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: RUSTY JARRETT (3) BODY BLOW Third-round leader Maggert came a cropper on Sunday at the deceptively difficult 3rd hole. After hitting his tee shot into a bunker, he tried to escape--but his attempt caught the lip of the trap and caromed back into him. The result: a two-stroke penalty (which Maggert called on himself) and a triple bogey.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (3) BUSH LEAGUE At number 3 on Sunday, Woods's errant drive (which he blamed, in part, on caddie Williams, below) forced him to make a lefthanded escape en route to a double bogey.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BOTTOM) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS WOODEN CHIPS During sudden death, Mattiace was up a tree after he hooked his approach shot to the left of the green.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK GREEN KEEPER After embracing his wife, Bricia, Weir was happy to have Woods hand over the coveted Masters jacket.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LEFT) [See caption above]
By taking the year's first major in hand, Weir politely announced
himself as golf's NEW MAN OF THE MOMENT.
WOODS'S WOES RETURNED on the 3rd hole Sunday, when he committed
his worst strategic error ever in a major.
Mattiace needed par at 18 to all but clinch his victory. He
stared at the 35 feet of green. "IT LOOKED LIKE ICE TO ME," he
said.
"It was just A GUT-WRENCHING DAY," said Weir, "with a lot of
putts that I needed to make and was able to make."