Major confidence boost

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

Having solved its mystifying riddle once, Mike Weir has discovered that Augusta National is a gift that keeps on giving. On a conference call yesterday with golf writers from across North America, the Masters champion tried to put into perspective exactly what the net effect was of his 2003 victory.

"Definitely I have a little more confidence in my game now," Weir said. "Until you get it done in that kind of situation, in that type of pressure, you're never sure if you can handle it. So now I know and the other guys know, that I can do that.

"Two weeks ago, in L.A., (Shigeki) Maruyama was throwing everything he could at me and I just had to believe that somehow I was going to get it done."

Weir had entered the final round at the Nissan Open five shots clear of Maruyama, but the Japanese star stalked him through the back nine, drawing level at the 16th green.

But on 18, Weir reached down deep to execute a delicate greenside chip from shaggy rough to save par and win the tournament.

"It takes experience, and maturity as a player and to be able to draw on an experience like Augusta last year," said Weir, who already has started his glide path toward Augusta, a month away.

This is a week of relaxation, to be followed by a couple of weeks of preventive maintenance on all aspects of his game.

He'll next compete in late March at The Players Championship, considered the fifth major, followed by BellSouth and then on to Augusta the first week of April.

"Overall, I think maybe my game is just a little bit better than what it was at this point last year," Weir said. "There was a time this year when I wasn't putting very well, but that has come around.

"I'm going to try to keep everything the same leading up."

As the defending champion, that will be impossible. Rather than just one of the players in the field, he'll be in great demand wherever he goes during the practice rounds, whether it's from the fans or from the insatiable media beast that will surely follow his every step.

And then, of course, there are his official responsibilities, such as being host of the champions dinner for all the past Masters winners, a collection of celebrities that includes many of the greatest names in the game's history.

Finally, there is the matter of mounting a successful defence of his title, a feat accomplished only three times (by fellas named Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods) in the tournament's 70-year history.

A player determined to win the Masters has to do his homework. Augusta National gives up its secrets only to those who are paying attention and most professionals will admit that it takes many years to get comfortable with its nuances.

"Each year you find things that maybe you didn't know the year before," said Weir, who has never finished worse than 28th in four tries. "I try to take a lot of notes during the practice rounds to remind myself of things ... the way a certain putt breaks, or the side of the hole to make sure I'm on. There are places where you'd rather be 30 or 40 feet away on the correct side rather than 10 or 15 feet away on the wrong side.

"The more years you play and especially the more competitive rounds you play, you get a greater appreciation for what a complex golf course it is. If you fall asleep out there on any hole, there is a very fine line between a birdie and a double-bogey."

Three years ago, massive changes were made to the golf course to make it longer and more difficult in the face of today's technology. But the past two wet springs have not revealed the true nature of the golf course, which is designed to play dry and fast, especially its undulating greens.

This could be the year that we learn just how difficult the new Augusta National is and Weir is more than ready.


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