TSN25: Weir is Master-ful in Augusta

Paul Hoogkamp,

8/18/2009 10:31:30 AM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, great individual achievements in non-traditional Canadian sports, including Mike Weir's history-making victory at The Masters.

Canada prides itself on being a hockey superpower, but many athletes have accomplished great things in other sports not usually considered part of the Canadian fabric.

Baseball is considered America's pastime. But in recent years, Canadians have made their mark in Major League Baseball. 

Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, B.C. appeared in five All-Star Games, won seven Gold Gloves and was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1997. Montreal's Eric Gagne captured the National League's Cy Young Award in 2003 after successfully converting on all 55 save opportunities with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C. is at the top of his game, having appeared in the last three All-Star Games and winning the American League's MVP Award in 2006.

And while Canadian Dr. James Naismith is credited with inventing the game of basketball, it has long been dominated by our neighbours to the south. But Victoria, B.C.'s Steve Nash brought the focus back north of the border in 2004-05, when he captured the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award for the first time.

The following season, Nash became just the ninth player ever to win back-to-back MVP titles and only the third guard to do it, joining the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

Before his untimely death in 1982, Gilles Villeneuve put Canada on the Formula One racing map, winning six career races and finishing second in the driver's championship in 1979. His son, Jacques would carry on the family tradition by winning the Formula One title in 1997.

But perhaps the greatest individual achievement in the last 25 years of Canadian sports that did not happen on ice may very well be Mike Weir's win at Augusta National in 2003.

Weir was facing a daunting task heading to The Masters, knowing no Canadian or left-handed golfer had ever donned the treasured Green Jacket. But looking back, the native of Bright's Grove, Ontario seemed destined to capture a major.

In 1998, Weir won the PGA Tour's qualifying school to earn his card and then excited golf fans in Vancouver and across the nation the following year by picking up his first Tour victory at the Air Canada Championship.

Loaded with confidence, Weir finished sixth on the money list in 2000, cashing his richest cheque yet by winning the World Golf Championships in Spain. He also became the first Canadian to participate in the President's Cup.

The next season, the lefthander won the TOUR Championship, commonly known as the fifth major and climbed into the top 10 in the World Rankings.

In 2003, Weir opened The Masters with a solid 2-under round of 70 and followed that up with a 4-under 68 to take a four-shot lead into the weekend.

Despite having five career tour victories before The Masters, Weir had never held the lead through 36 holes so he was entering foreign territory. And the bump in the road came on Moving Day when Weir registered six bogeys en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him two strokes behind third-round leader Jeff Maggert.

But Weir would rebound on Sunday. With Maggert falling off the pace early, Weir engaged in a battle with Len Mattiace on the back nine.

"Normally when I'm covering a golf tournament, I'll go back to the media centre to watch the last nine holes, primarily because it can be so difficult to follow the action over a large area such as a golf course," said TSN Golf Insider Bob Weeks. "But that day, I remember sensing something big was happening; you could see the confidence Mike had in his game and so I decided to keep going."

As a result, Weeks watched as Weir stood on the 18th green with a 7-foot par putt to get into a playoff. The chance at history was just a knee-knocker away.

For TSN's Cory Woron, a golf enthusiast who has played Augusta National, this is when it started to sink in.

"I just remember watching him sink putt after putt," he said. "Here he was after shooting 3-over in round three, facing down one crucial putt after another. You hoped it would continue but you also knew they could stop going in at any moment. It wasn't until his 7-footer on 18 to get into the playoff that I thought it would happen."

With an entire nation holding its collective breath, Weir rolled the putt into the centre of the cup and confidently headed to the 10th hole for the playoff. Later, Weir would say it was the biggest shot of his life.

The playoff proved to be almost anti-climactic when Mattiace hit his approach shot into the woods and nearly ran his par putt off the green, leaving Weir with a tap-in bogey to claim the victory. After having the Green Jacket handed to him by 2002 champion Tiger Woods, Weir received a congratulatory call from then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

"As we were getting ready to tape a segment for SportsCentre by Butler Cabin, Chairman of Augusta National, Hootie Johnson walked by and said, 'This must be a big day for Canada,'" said Weeks. "I told him that was the ultimate understatement and went on to explain that it was probably one of the biggest sporting events in the country's history."

The importance of Weir's victory cannot be overestimated. Not only did he raise the profile of golf across an entire country, he gave every young Canadian golfer the notion that anything is possible.

"The effects of that win are still being felt today, with a lot of increased attention on the game, young players who started or who were encouraged because of that victory," Weeks said. "I think that more than anything is the legacy of the victory - if this left-handed kid from small town Ontario can go on to win one of the biggest prizes in golf, then so can any one else who dreams big enough."

Now with Tiger Woods in the prime of his career, the chances of winning majors are more difficult than ever. But with one major on his resume, could the 39-year-old Weir win another?  

"I don't see why not," said Woron. "He almost set a U.S. Open record this year with an opening round 64. The problem is Weir is never going to overpower a golf course. His strengths lie in his short game and putting, but if you're relying on making a ton of par saves all week, you're going to need a lot of other things to go your way."