The Last WordMike Weir returns to the California desert full of hope for another successful PGA Tour season. And, he has four fellow Canadians right there with him.
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
LA QUINTA, Calif. -- This is where it all started for Mike Weir last year, in the middle of this man-made oasis.
It's amazing what will grow if you leave the hose running on this sunbaked earth. Few places on earth are blessed with such unnaturally-natural beauty as this horticulturally-enhanced valley 210 km east of Los Angeles.
Weir came here last January, as parched as the soil that sits outside the reach of the sprinklers. He left with not only a PGA Tour victory, but the confidence to take his game to a new level.
"I took away a lot of good memories from here," Weir said yesterday. "I recall it as kind of a tough week to start because my grandmother passed away. I went home for her funeral and I didn't get here until (Wednesday), about three in the morning. Without any practice, I went out and got off to a good start, held it together the next three days, then finished it off with three birdies on Sunday."
The Hope victory was a springboard to even bigger things, including a Masters title. A year later, Weir comes back with perhaps heightened expectations -- both from himself and from others.
For starters, he's in the big-time celebrity pool at the Hope this year. Today he'll be partnered with future baseball Hall of Famer Roger Clemens and TV host Carson Daly. Tomorrow, it's former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Friday, he'll be with former pro tennis player Michael Chang and singer Michael Bolton. Saturday, Weir will play in a foursome with Bolton and actors Craig T. Nelson and George Lopez.
Having digested the events of the past year, Weir isn't looking backward, but forward. It's entirely possible he won't duplicate or surpass his three-win season that netted him nearly $5 million US in earnings, but he believes he can.
"Now I know I can play that way and I can be better still," he said. "I'm still young enough that I feel like I have a lot of good years in me. As we saw last year, there were a lot of guys in their 40s still winning tournaments.
"There's always pressure. It's there in every aspect of the game. I'm at a stage in my career, with my game and my life, that I can handle it. I'm secure about it. I'm my own worst critic. I put enough pressure on myself that outside influences don't bother me."
While Weir's 2004 season began officially two weeks ago in Hawaii, he didn't really have a chance at the Mercedes, where he finished 24th out of 30 entrants. This may be his second event of the year but it's more of a starting point than Maui.
"It has been such a short off-season this year," he said. "I only had three weeks and I didn't swing a golf club at all going into Hawaii. I treated the Mercedes as more of a vacation week. My dad and brothers and nieces and nephews were all there.
"Last week, I spent some time with my coach (Mike Wilson) and got in a lot of good practice. So I feel a lot more prepared coming in here."
When his 2003 season ended in the middle of December, Weir was tired and sore. His left shoulder and neck were causing him problems that manifested in poor driving statistics. After a bit of rest and a determination to stretch more, Weir is back driving the ball straight and long.
"I've always had a problem with my flexibility. You look at big, loose-limbed guys like Ernie (Els) and Vijay (Singh) and you know they don't have flexibility problems. I'm just a tight guy. I have a lot of difficulty keeping my body loose."
This tournament also is the starting point for all the other Canadians hoping to hit it big. That includes Glen Hnatiuk of Winnipeg; Ian Leggatt of Cambridge; David Morland IV of Aurora; and Calgary's Stephen Ames, who took his oath of citizenship in November.
For Hnatiuk, it's a fresh start with a new driver which he hopes will help him improve on his 185th position in driving distance on the PGA Tour. This year, he has switched to a driver-ball combination that probably will give him an extra 10 to 20 yards per tee shot.
"I need to get myself in position to win," Hnatiuk said. "The few times I have been in position, I have not responded well. But I still believe the potential is there."
Ames begins this season as a new Canadian. More importantly, he's working on a new body, working out seriously for the first time in his career.
One of his primary goals is to qualify for the Masters, something he never has done as he heads toward his 40th birthday.
The comedian whose name is on the marquee of this event may be dead, but don't kid yourself. This tournament still is all about hope.