A golfer in progress

Most Florida courses demand that players take carts. But, thankfully, it’s still possible to walk a course while watching a tournament. I did that recently while following Mike Weir in the last round at the Genuity Championship at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa. It was a good walk — not spoiled — but enhanced.

Weir held a one-shot lead in the $4.5 million (U.S.) tournament after three rounds. The game was on. PGA Tour officials moved the final round’s tee times up by a few hours because a severe weather system was supposed to move in during the afternoon. I joined a decent-sized but relatively small crowd on the first tee at 9:40 that Sunday morning as Weir, Davis Love III and Hal Sutton started their appointed rounds.

There’s no better way to learn about a player than to follow him for an entire round. It’s far and away the best means of gaining insight into the current state of his game, how he can handle the inevitable ups and downs of a round — everything that goes into his score.

A learning experience

Back in August 1999, I followed Weir in the last round of the PGA Championship at the Medinah #3 course near Chicago. He was tied forhe lead with Tiger Woods, and playing with him in the last round. Weir was an unknown to most American fans. Tiger was, well, Tiger.

That round went wrong for Weir from the get-go. He dropped shots starting at the second hole, and shot 80 to tie for tenth place. Woods won the tournament by a shot over the young Spanish star Sergio Garcia. It wasn’t an easy day for Weir, but he wasn’t as crushed as many people thought he would be.

“I tried my best on every shot,” Weir said after his round. “What else can I do?”

Weir learned a few lessons that round. For one thing, he learned not to try to change his putting style during a round. He’d been putting well until that round, but missed putts early and tried to force things by changing his style. Weir also was affected by the mayhem around Woods. He was often left on his own, trying to make his way through crowds to the next tee.

Something else happened, something intangible that would help Weir in the future. Fans were unruly and even crude toward him. “What are you doing here?” some idiots screamed. “Come on, Weir, you can do it,” they yelled down the last few holes when Weir was far off the pace. They were mocking him. He took it all in and didn’t react and I was impressed with his strength of character.

Three weeks later Weir won the Air Canada Championship in Surrey, B.C., his first victory on the PGA Tour. He demonstrated that the last round of the PGA Championship hadn’t broken him at all. He had learned from the experience.

Coming up short, again

Fast forward to the last round at Doral. There’s a strong wind, the course is getting fast and firm and the greens are crusty. Weir birdies the first hole by reaching the green of the par-five in two shots, makes two more birdies through the eighth hole and leads the tournament. But he bogies the ninth and tenth holes, and Joe Durant shoots a remarkable seven-under par 65 to win by two shots. Weir shoots 71, finishes second and wins $486,000. But he’s not thinking of the money — he’s thinking of how he played.

From my point of view he hit the ball beautifully, and Weir agrees that he played well in the wind. The ability to hit the ball in the middle of the clubface so that the trajectory isn’t affected by the wind is the sign of a first-class ball-striker. Nick Price says Weir is the best left-hander he’s ever seen when it comes to striking the ball. I’d go further and say he’s one of the best ball-strikers in the game now.

Watching Weir, you know he is after only one thing: purity on each shot. He’s worked hard on his golf swing so that it’s now repetitive, with all the right moves. That’s still not good enough for Weir, who seeks more consistency. He’s on his way, and could well challenge in and win a major championship this year.

During that final round at Doral, I was impressed by Weir’s routine. He does the same thing before each shot. Weir says it’s important to try to make golf a reaction sport, like hockey. Study his routine and you’ll see a golfer who puts himself into a cocoon of concentration, and who reacts to his target. Weir truly plays one shot at a time.

We can all learn from watching the best golfers, and Weir is in that group — he’s ranked 15th in the world now. It’s been fun following him for nearly a decade. He’s learning well. We could also learn, just by watching him closely. It’s a rewarding study.