Just like Mike ... again?Weir ready to start his quest to join the threesome of Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods
ATLANTA -- He has done it once. Now, can he do it again? The challenge that faces Mike Weir this week as he attempts to defend his Masters title at Augusta National Golf Club is one that has stymied all but three of the winners since this tournament was established in 1934. Only three men have managed to pull it off. You may have heard of them -- hackers named Jack Nicklaus (1965-'66), Nick Faldo(1989-'90) and Tiger Woods (2001-'02). There have been plenty of multiple winners over the years but only those three have been able to put two victorious Masters back-to-back. And nobody has won three in a line.
"So many things have to go right," said Nicklaus, who has won a record six Masters titles. "The hardest to win is the first one. But once that's over with, I suppose the second one should be a little bit easier because there's less pressure -- and I'm talking about the kind of pressure you put on yourself. But at some time, somebody's going to get you. Either you're going to make some mistakes or somebody else is going to rise to the occasion.
"When I won in '65 and '66, I came back in '67 and played like a dog. I shot 79 in the second round and missed the cut. That's just the way golf is."
After his win last April, Weir was unable to crack the winner's circle the rest of the season, though he had some strong tournaments, especially in the three other major championships on the PGA Tour.
He dismisses the notion that his approach or his attitude changed in any way through the second half of 2003.
"I think maybe the way other people, especially people outside the sport, viewed me changed," he said. "But not the way I see myself or how I approach the game.
"I'm just as hungry as ever. Maybe even more so, now that I've had a taste of what it's like to win a major."
He has proved that again this year with a strong start that included his seventh PGA Tour victory, at the Nissan Open. In his own mind, that was a very important win because it represented a successful title defence. He makes no secret of his desire to get back to Augusta to try to win it again.
"It's going to be a busy week," he said. "Other years I've been able to come in and kind of fly under the radar. Obviously, that's not going to happen this time, but it's just a matter of planning my time."
It's one thing to come in as the defender at the Nissan Open and quite another to have that distinction at Augusta in the international spotlight.
"I think it's definitely going to feel different," he said last week at The Players Championship. "I was there (at Augusta two weeks ago) and played the golf course and it was fun to be back there. I hadn't played there since I won.
"Tournament week will be different. Hosting a Masters dinner Tuesday night with a lot of the greats of the game will be exciting. I don't know what I'm going to say to all those guys, but it should be fun.
"Last year, with it being my first major (victory), I didn't know what it would entail, how it would be received and how busy I would be. Now I feel more comfortable with (the responsibility) and it's just another thing I have to prepare for. So I don't think any of it will distract me from why I'm here, which is to prepare for the tournament."
Weir now has a locker (next to Doug Ford) in the inner sanctum of the most private golf club in the world. The Champions Locker Room is apart from the general locker space where the mere mortals change their clothes. Each past champion has his own brass plate and a cubicle that will be there as long as he is.
"Some guys aren't suited for this kind of attention, but Mike is very focused, very determined and very intense," said Nick Price, twice a teammate of Weir's in Presidents Cup play. "He has a bit of the bulldog in him. You can tell that all of this hasn't changed him one bit."
Woods and Weir share a single-mindedness and a rare ability to maintain strict focus in the face of multiple distractions. Ironically, Weir learned a painful lesson the first time he played with Woods down the stretch of a major tournament, the 1999 PGA Championship. The two started the day tied for the lead, but Weir shot 80 and was a non-factor, blown away by Woods and the rowdy gallery.
"I learned a lot that day," Weir said. "I'm a different player, a better player in many ways, including my mental approach."
Added Woods: "Hey, he's just going to go out there and play. That's what I did. You're defending champion for 51 weeks. Once that tournament week comes along, it's up for grabs and away we go. Once that first shot is struck on Thursday, nobody is the champion at all until Sunday night."
The greatest advantage a player gains from a Masters title is the knowledge that he has proved his mettle on the crucible of Augusta National's back nine under the gun in the final round. Pros who have survived it agree there might be no greater pressure in medal play golf than Augusta on Sunday, coming down the stretch.
"The biggest thing is the confidence that comes with knowing you've done it," said Woods, speaking last year at this time when he went looking for his third Masters title in a row. "You know the shots. You know where to hit it. And, most important, you know you've actually hit those shots under tournament pressure. When you're out there, you relive those moments. You know how to handle the situation and that's the biggest thing."
Augusta is a place where the game's big stars shine the brightest. The list of past champions is a virtual who's-who of the history of the sport over the past 75 years. Most of the winners have had distinguished careers, whereas the U.S. Open or the British or the PGA have all had a number of one-hit wonders, champions who came out of left field.
"This golf course seems to bring out the best in the best players," Nicklaus said. "It's a course that tests your ability to hit the ball in the air, it tests hitting it softly, it tests length, accuracy and putting. It tests everything.
"It's played on the same golf course every year but it very seldom plays the same two years in a row. One year it may be soft and wet, the next year it can be hard and fast. You have to be able to adjust and, more often than not, it's the best players who are able to do that."
This year is expected to be a case in point. Two years ago, Augusta National made major renovations to its layout, lengthening 10 holes to make the Masters less vulnerable to the onslaught of technology.
Unfortunately, nobody really knows what the effect of those changes will be, even now. The past two Masters have been played in wet, soggy conditions because of steady rains before and during the tournament.
This year there has been little rainfall in March, with no major downpours expected before the field tees off next Thursday.
When Weir went in for a couple of practice rounds two weeks ago, he found the fairways and greens to be hard and fast, with plenty of run on the ball, unlike last year when balls would often stop right in their pitch marks. In his first practice round, he shot 66 and in his second, 70.
"I'm looking forward to seeing some run on the ball," Weir said. "I think the conditions will suit my ball flight, which is lower than most, because I'll get some roll.
"That will allow me to be coming at the greens with shorter clubs which will be crucial if the greens are as firm as I expect."
All that said, Weir has his work cut out this week. Every one of the 100 or so players in the field thinks this is going to be his week. Ninety-nine of them will go home without a green jacket.
But there's only one of them with a chance to win his second in a row this year.
"I want to keep as many things the same as last year as possible," Weir said. "I'm staying at the same place and I'm going to try to keep my work and preparation the same. Of course, there are some extra duties but it's all a matter of time management.
"I think I have a good strategy for the golf course and that's important. Distance control with your irons, putting it on the smart side of the hole are the things I try to base it all on. Then, of course, you've got to make your putts."
Every Masters champion is asked to donate a golf club to be displayed at Augusta National's clubhouse. The idea is that it be a club that played a significant role in that player's win. If he was true to that request, Weir would have donated his putter. Instead, he gave them a wedge which was an important ally in keeping the ball on the right side of so many holes.
"I felt like I could part with my wedge and they could replace that with a duplicate, but my putter ... well, I think I'm going to need that."