Masters playoff had subtle left-right break

Lefty champ Weir writes right

runner-up Mattiace only golfs right-handed

Golf

April 15, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - When Mike Weir and Len Mattiace went out for their playoff in the 67th Masters on Sunday, few knew that a left-hander was going to win this tournament either way.

Mattiace, it seems, does everything but play golf left-handed.

"I eat lefty and write lefty and kick lefty, all the kicking that I do," joked Mattiace, who might be kicking himself for losing the sudden-death playoff with a double bogey on the first extra hole. "But Mike's a great player and a great champion."

Weir, 32, became the first left-handed player to win the Masters and the first to win any of golf's four major championships since Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open in a playoff at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Five lefties play on the PGA Tour. Weir also became the first Canadian to win a major.

After all those years when Phil Mickelson apparently was the Great Left Hope, it turned out Weir was the one. Not that Weir's brain waves totally turn out left-handed signals.

"I'm mixed up," Weir said after his third victory on the PGA Tour this year. "I write with my right hand, play racket sports with my right, but I throw with my left, serve tennis with my left and play [tennis] with my right."

Asked how many times he had been told that he was standing on the wrong side of the ball, Weir had a question of his own.

"You're a lefty, right?" asked Weir.

He smiled.

"I think back even when I was starting out in junior golf, the equipment issue was a bit of a factor," Weir said. "That was a tough thing. Now, it's not an issue. I think you'll see more left-handed golfers.

"The fathers of the past changing their sons to right-handed I think is no longer an issue anymore."

Rich Weir, who introduced his son to the game his relatives played back in Scotland, encouraged him to stay left-handed. So did Jack Nicklaus, to whom the younger Weir wrote for advice when he was 13. Nicklaus, two years away from the last of his six Masters victories, encouraged the Canadian teen-ager "to stick with your natural swing."

Weir listened and began playing more seriously when he came to the United States to go to school at Brigham Young. He eventually gave up his boyhood dream of playing in the NHL for another one: the PGA Tour. After leading the Canadian Tour in earnings in 1997, Weir made the PGA Tour.

"It was a long road," Weir said Sunday night. "I mean, it took me six years to even get on tour out of college. Those times missing q-school and playing overseas and the commitment that it takes, not only for myself, my family, my wife ... it's a lot of time away, though she did travel with me before we had kids, caddied at odd times.

"And it's an unbelievable progression that I've finally gotten here, but I think even back then I believed I would get here somehow. I would figure it out. My golf swing wasn't very good back then, and I knew I would kind of figure out a way to do that and overhaul that."

The only reminder from those days is the long waggle Weir still takes when he addresses the ball. Fittingly, Weir's first PGA Tour victory was in the Air Canada Championship in 1999. He followed it with wins at the 2000 World Golf Championship and 2001 Tour Championship, but his career seemed to stagnate last year.

Then came the two wins this year, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Nissan Open.

"The fans [in Canada] have been very supportive, and I felt like I kind of let them down last year," said Weir, who dropped from sixth on the PGA Tour money list in 2000 and 11th in 2001 to 78th last year. "I didn't play very well at all. I was very motivated to, not only for myself, come out and play well this year."

Weir had played better this year, but his breakthrough win here could catapult him back among the game's elite. Not considered one of the tour's longest hitters, Weir won on a course that was made more difficult by four inches of rain that forced the opening round to be postponed and the field to play catch-up until Sunday.

During the week, Weir had credited the fitness program he began over the winter for helping him play 54 holes in less than 48 hours. The work he has had the past few months with Richard Gordon, a sports psychologist at Utah State, also helped Weir keep his mind from wandering.

"It's been obviously a little bit odd with a bunch of things going on outside the gates," Weir said, referring to Martha Burk's protest of the club's exclusionary policy toward women. "With the weather and everything, it's been a little bit of a hectic week. But I didn't pay attention to that. I was here to play a golf tournament."

The subject of who would be the first left-hander to win the Masters had never come up between Weir and Mickelson.

"We've never talked about it," Weir said curtly.

Weir was well aware of the 40-year drought for left-handers in majors, having played a practice round with Charles at Royal Lytham during last year's British Open. As much as he likes to say "I don't think of myself as a left-hander player when I'm out there, just a player," he knows how important this victory might be.

"I take a lot from this event," he said. "I hope to draw on this experience for a long time coming."

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