Mike Weir is player to watch

Judging by the volume of mail I’ve been receiving, Canadians are more than a little excited about Mike Weir’s play. The 29-year old from Bright’s Grove, Ontario – near Sarnia just had his fourth top-10 finish of the year on the PGA Tour. He tied for seventh at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Florida after being one shot out of the lead at the halfway mark.Weir slipped on the weekend, it’s true. He shot 72 in the third round while playing with a young man named Tiger Woods. You’ve probably heard of him: Won 18 PGA Tour events in 76 starts since turning pro in late 1996; leading money-winner of all time, notwithstanding his still-brief career. The young man can play.

So can Weir, though he didn’t have his “A” game on the weekend in Orlando. It’s funny the way things have been shaking out for him, almost as if destiny is taking a hand. Weir played with Woods in the final group in the third round at Bay Hill and last year played in the last group with him twice on Sundays. It’s as if the golfing gods want Weir to learn from the best golfer in the world. It’s as if they’re saying, “Mike, you have what it takes to get to the top. This is where you belong.”

Cck out last year. Weir started the last round of the Western Open in Chicago four shots behind Tiger, and then shot 70 to his 71. He finished second there. Then at the PGA Championship, the last major of the year, Weir and Woods were tied starting the last round. Woods won while Weir suffered through an 80. It wasn’t pretty, but anybody who thought the strong-minded golfer would slink away was soon proven wrong. Conclusively. He won the Air Canada Championship, a PGA Tour event held near Vancouver, three weeks later. Point made.

Weir has been on pretty well a direct course to being a top player since he won his PGA Tour card for the 1998 season. He came up about $50,000 short of finishing in the top 125 money-winners that year, and had to return to the six-round tournament called Qualifying School, or Q School.

Q School? It’s where golfers bleed, can hardly breathe, and simply try to survive. The top 35 golfers and ties out of an original pool of well over 1,000 win their playing cards for the following season. Weir had just made it for the 1998 season, and shed tears when he had finished the school then. And then he had to do it all over again.

How terrifying is Q School? David Gould, in his illuminating book Q-School Confidential, writes, In the Q School’s near and distant past, many of the vintage moments involve pressure. The classic, often whispered stories of final-stage qualifying (most golfers have to endure prior stages to reach the final agony) are all about breakdowns of the body and soul. The happier stories tell of emotional sinews that twist and fray but somehow keep the mind and golf swing together. Breakdown stories can haunt a pro for years.

But Weir didn’t break down. He won that Q School and leveraged it to win nearly $1.5 million (U.S.) last year.

I give every shot my best, Weir says. “It doesn’t matter what I’m shooting or how I’m hitting it. Then at the end of the round I can say I got the most out of what I brought to the course that day.”

Anybody who knows Weir can see there’s no give-up in him. The crowds during the final round of the PGA Championship last year were overwhelmingly in favour of Woods. As Weir slipped away they started making cruel comments about Weir. Woods commented on them later, and said he felt for Weir. Weir heard the comments, and ignored them.

Three weeks later Weir shot 64 the final round to win the Air Canada Championship. He became a national sporting hero — and that’s not an exaggeration. Weir’s picture was on the front page of most papers across Canada.

“I first met Mike when he got his card (when he qualified for the PGA Tour, that is),” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recalls. “We had a three-minute conversation then and I thought that this is the kind of guy who belongs on the PGA Tour. I just hoped he would make it.”

Most observers feel Weir has made it already. He feels the only thing he has made is a good start. Weir will play his first Masters in two weeks. His wife Bricia is due with their second daughter two days after the Masters. Life is good for Mike Weir, and for Canadians who follow him. He can win any week he tees it up, anywhere.

“I think I can handle the attention,” Weir says. “It’s an adjustment, but there’s definitely been a progression with my game, so I’m getting more attention. Before nobody knew who I was.”

Those days are over.