The Long Road Back

TEN YEARS AFTER A TENSE SUDDEN-DEATH PLAYOFF PUT THEM AT THE CENTER OF GOLF'S GRANDEST DRAMA, MIKE WEIR AND LEN MATTIACE ARE GRINDING TO RETURN TO THE STAGE
April 22, 2013

Every so often Len Mattiace and his wife, Kristen, will watch the tape, a reminder of the day one of them made it to the top and the world stopped and took notice. No, Kristen didn't win The Price Is Right all those years ago, but she was on the show, there on the big stage with Bob Barker and the rest of them. She did come within $35 of winning, and she and Lenny still smile at the memory.

"Sometimes you ask yourself," Len says, "did that really happen?"

They watch the replay of the 2003 Masters less often, but not because they're afraid of what is coming. "It was 98 percent a fantastic day," Mattiace says of his final-round 65, followed by an interminable wait in the clubhouse, followed by Mattiace's making a mess of the first playoff hole, which Mike Weir won with a bogey. Hey, somebody wins, somebody loses—that's the way playoffs go.

Mattiace, 45, wasn't in the field for the 2013 Masters. And though he likes to watch the majors to see who is playing well and how the course is set up, he didn't catch much of round 1. He was at his home course, TPC Sawgrass, as Len's Friends, his charity, participated in a concert to benefit Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville.

Weir, the only Canadian to win a major and the first lefty to win the Masters, teed it up at Augusta last week but shot 72--79 and wasn't around for the weekend. At 42, he has seen his scores soar after swing changes and a right elbow injury that required surgery. He missed the cut in all 14 events he played in last year and is competing in 2013 on a one-time exemption available to the top 25 career money winners.

"It's human nature to try to judge from the outside," says Weir, whose game has shown signs of turning despite his results—three made cuts in nine starts and earnings of $27,000 in 2013. "No one knows what I do behind the scenes. How hard I work. I've learned that I can't fight that battle of public perception. My plan is to leave no stone unturned, and when I decide to hang it up, I'll have no regrets."

If you want to catch up with golf's legends and mythmakers, you've come to the wrong place. You missed the 10th anniversary for the 2002 Masters, won by Tiger Woods (again), and it's not yet time to relive the '04 Masters, won by Phil Mickelson (finally). The '03 Masters is representative of what happens when mere mortals hit the pinnacle of human achievement: They come down unwillingly and, in some cases, swiftly.

MATTIACE'S DESCENT began on skis. A native of Jericho, N.Y., on Long Island, he went to Vail with his agent and some friends for a guys' trip in December 2003. The slopes were thick with powder. Mattiace was unaccustomed to so much new snow, and during one run he fell hard and heard two loud pops. He tried to get back on his skis but fell down again, and he had to be dragged down the mountain on a stretcher. He'd torn both ACLs and MCLs, dislocated his right kneecap and fractured a bone in his left knee. Kristen was summoned to Vail, where Richard Steadman, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, performed arthroscopic surgery. Mattiace went through two weeks of rehab before he was strong enough to fly home to Jacksonville. It was a somber Christmas.

After being cut open once more to clean out scar tissue, Mattiace returned to the Tour in March 2004, three months after the accident. He barely broke 80 during two rounds at the Honda Classic, missed the cut by a shot at Bay Hill and finished 33rd at the Players.

"I could hit it 260, but I could barely walk," he says. "Stabilitywise I wasn't even close, and I was making accommodations in my swing for a body that wasn't healed. I had no muscles in my legs, no drive. I was like a baby deer trying to walk. Shots were flying outside the ropes."

Still exempt by virtue of his two Tour victories in 2002 (the Nissan Open and the FedEx St. Jude Classic), Mattiace figured he had to play. He missed the cut at the '04 Masters and failed to produce a top 10 finish for the first time in his 10-year career. Although his short game was still occasionally terrific—Mattiace won the Compaq World Putting Championship in 1996—the rest of his game was a mess. After making a combined $3.4 million in '02 and '03, he earned $213,706 in '04.

More than many golfers, Mattiace looks like an athlete, possessed of a 6' 1", 185-pound frame. He had all the right credentials after a gilded amateur career. He helped Wake Forest win the 1986 NCAA crown and played in the Walker Cup, which earned him an invite to the '88 Masters. (He missed the cut.) And he was nearly infallible on that special Sunday at Augusta in 2003, holing out for a miracle birdie after short-siding himself at the 8th, draining a transcontinental birdie putt on 10, making eagle on 13. None of that helped slow his free fall.

"I came back too soon," he admits now.

He made nine cuts in 34 starts in 2005, and six of 22 in '06. Demoted to the Web.com tour, he made two of 16 cuts in '07. For years Mattiace penned handwritten notes and mailed them not only to tournament directors but also to pro-am partners, and his goodwill was rewarded. He got into 10 Tour events in '07. Alas, he missed the cut in every one of them.

"I guess you could say it's affected me all the way until today," Mattiace says of the injury. "I got into a lot of bad habits."

Today he thinks he has kicked most of them, and a tie for fourth at the Web.com tour's season-opening Panama Claro Championship in February buoyed his spirits. What's more, the Web.com tour will send an unprecedented 50 players to the big Tour at the end of this year, and Mattiace has his sights set on a comeback.

"Nobody will ever know what would've happened to Lenny if [the accident] hadn't happened," Kristen says. "He got called into the interview room at some tournament and was asked, 'Can you tell us what Tiger's going through?' And he pretty much stopped them in their tracks. He said, 'Tiger's got one bad leg. I had two.' Lenny literally didn't have a leg to stand on; he couldn't use the good leg to help him rehab the bad one the way Tiger could."

Mattiace received about a thousand letters of support after the 2003 Masters, and he has kept them all—they live in a square oak box in his office closet. There's the handwritten one from Byron Nelson; another from Greg Norman; the note from Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein, even though Mattiace by then was mostly playing a competitor's equipment. Many of the letters are from strangers. Mattiace spoke from the heart in the interview room after the playoff, weeping as he articulated his love of golf and his appreciation for his magical round. He touched people. "Len Mattiace is all class," says Jeff Weber, his caddie for the two victories in '02 and the runner-up at Augusta. (The missed cut in 2004 was Mattiace's last trip to Augusta National.)

Every year, right around the time of the Masters and the Players Championship, Len and Kristen get requests from the media. It was at the 1998 Players that Mattiace, a shot off the lead and playing for his cancer-stricken mother, Joyce, who was being pushed around the course in a wheelchair, hit two balls in the water on the 17th hole and made a quintuple-bogey 8. It was as brutal a loss as you're likely to see in golf. Sometimes he does the interview; sometimes he doesn't even return the call.

They are fine financially. Mattiace has made almost $7 million in his career, and he's still at it, picking up almost $25,000 in Panama. He still has endorsements and still sometimes shines on tougher courses, even if those are rare on the Web.com tour. At home, he and Kristen organize their lives around Gracee, a 10th-grader who plays on a nationally competitive volleyball team, and Noelle, a sixth-grader who plays tennis and swims. Len and Kristen will celebrate their 20th anniversary this summer. "We're blessed," Kristen says. "It's all good. We're in a good place."

As do many Canadians, Graham DeLaet remembers exactly where he was when Weir won the Masters. Playing for Boise State, DeLaet was at a tournament in Pocatello, Idaho, and he caught only Weir's second shot into 18, plus the playoff. "We saw the important part," says DeLaet, 31, who in four seasons on the PGA Tour has made almost $2.6 million. "My dad was there too, and we were both screaming our heads off."

Brennan Little, then Weir's caddie, remembers not just Weir's nerve-jangling, seven-foot par putt on the last hole of regulation but also his lightning-fast eagle try on 13, which he barely touched but watched roll more than 10 feet past the hole. He made the comebacker for a must-have birdie to begin to reel in Mattiace. Says Little, "Mike made so many of those that week."

Weir would fade away slowly. He won the 2004 Nissan Open, but he missed nine cuts in 23 starts in '05. In contention at Pebble Beach in '06, he shot a final-round 78. He turned to stack-and-tilt gurus Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer and broke a 3½-year victory drought at the Fry's Electronics Open in October 2007. But victory number 8 would be his last, or at least his most recent.

As with anyone whose game goes south—Baker-Finch, Duval, David Gossett—Weir is not easily explained. He points to the day he hit a tree root at Hilton Head in 2010, the stinger damaging his right elbow more than he knew. He tried to play through the injury, but he made only two cuts in 2011 before opting for surgery in August. The Tour gave him a major medical extension, but he didn't make enough cash in 2012 to keep his card. Meanwhile he ditched the stack-and-tilt, went back to it, then dropped it again. He is now coached by former Tour pro Grant Waite.

"My game is all about hitting it in the fairway and striking it solid and being precise," Weir says. "If I can't do that, I can't compete."

The consummate grinder, Weir needed six trips to Q school to get his card. He has always come out the other side and then some, with almost $27 million in career earnings. If anyone can play his way out of the abyss, Little says, it's Weir, who has already done it once. He tries to remain upbeat for his wife, Bricia, and their daughters, Lili and Elle, back home in Draper, Utah.

"Having a couple of kids," he says, when asked how he's kept his sanity. "Just getting home, going to their soccer, their basketball games, doing a little skiing, going for a hike or a bike ride—that helps put everything in perspective."

Like Mattiace, Weir has seen positive signs. You could hear DeLaet's excitement when he tweeted after a practice round at the Sony Open in January: "Got tapped out by Weirsy with a filthy eagle on 18 in Hawaii today."

The game is in there, and Weir knows he has all of sporting Canada at his back. Mattiace enjoys similar hometown support. Neither man can overpower a course; each is more finely calibrated than that. So they keep at it and try to take the long view—that once they had the longest long view of all, from the top of the top.

He fell hard and heard two loud pops. He tried to get up but fell again.

As with anyone whose game goes south, Weir is not easily explained.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDDOWNFALL Mattiace's descent was swift, both in the playoff (right) and on the ski slopes, while Weir's slide has played out more gradually and with a less obvious explanation. PHOTOMIKE SEGAR/REUTERSSHAKE OUT They were short-game wizards, and when they parted ways at the end of the '03 Masters, Mattiace and Weir seemed primed to become contenders for years to come. Neither did. PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (COVER) PHOTOSTAN BADZ/PGA TOUR/GETTY IMAGES (MATTIACE)STILL SWINGING Despite years of struggle, Mattiace is plugging away on the Web.com tour and hoping to get back to the PGA Tour, where Weir is playing after using a one-time exemption to keep his card. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WEIR)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)