Win validates Weir's breakthrough season
The rain poured down in Southern California, and Mike Weir saw what was once a seven-stroke lead washed away. A seemingly easy victory was now not a certainty. He was in for a fight.
Weir eventually prevailed Sunday at Riviera Country Club, capturing his second straight Nissan Open thanks to a great chip at the 18th hole. Yeah, it would have been horrible to become just the third player in the past 20 years to blow a five-stroke lead in the final round. And it would have been annoying to have to answer questions again about not winning from in front, only coming from behind. All that would have been bad enough.
But winning again was big for a far more important reason: It was Weir's first victory since The Masters.
As great of a season as Weir had in 2003 -- three victories, including his win at Augusta, four thirds and 10 top-10s -- he faded toward the end.
It was a career year for the Canadian lefty, who earned $4.9 million and finished fifth on the PGA Tour money list. It was breakthrough season, one that established Weir as one of the best in the game.
Nevertheless, Weir didn't want to go into The Masters in April having gone 52 weeks without a win.
"I was ready to start playing some better golf,'' Weir said Sunday after his victory. "I had been working hard with my coach to figure it out a little bit. My ball-striking wasn't very good at the end of the year and that's what was causing me some problems. I went to work with him the last few weeks and it's really starting to come around. I was anxious to get a win again.''
Indeed, unless you are Tiger Woods, it is easy to become yesterday's news in golf.
Since Weir won at Augusta, Jim Furyk broke through with his first major win and added another PGA Tour victory. Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel became unlikely major winners. Vijay Singh challenged Woods' greatness, capturing the money title. He then rattled off 12 straight top-10s. Ernie Els started the year with a victory here and abroad, while Phil Mickelson won again. John Daly even won a tournament.
Meanwhile, Weir was quietly plodding alone. It is easy to forget that he had the best record of any player at the major championships last year, following up his playoff victory over Len Mattiace at The Masters with a tie for third at the U.S. Open and a tie for seventh at the PGA Championship. He also tied for 28th at the British Open.
If Weir got a little tired of it all last year, it would have been understandable, although he didn't let on. Weir finished the season third in scoring average behind Woods, but was never a threat to win a tournament late in the year.
Weir had his chance on Sunday, and nearly blew it. He led by seven strokes with 15 holes to play, but was caught by Shigeki Maruyama on the 16th hole. Had Weir not won, it would have been the biggest final-round collapse since Jean Van de Velde blew a five-stroke lead at the 1999 British Open.
But then, Weir has a flare for the dramatic. All of his six previous victories were won from behind. The Masters victory was particularly impressive. Mattiace had finished in front, and Weir had to catch him, first birdieing the 15th hole to tie, then making two tough clutch par putts at the 17th and 18th holes, including a six-footer at the last that was do or die.
On Sunday, he turned what should have been a waltz into work, although Maruyama played a role, charging from behind with nothing to lose.
"I've been out here seven years, I've seen pretty much every situation there is,'' Weir said. "When Shigeki birdied (No.) 16, I said, "'You got to love it.' If you said at the beginning of the week that we'd be tied on No. 17, I'd be happy with it. It wasn't maybe what I expected at the beginning of the day, but that's the reality right now, and I need to bear down.''
Weir did, nearly holing a chip shot for birdie at the 18th, then tapping in for the victory.
On Monday, he moved up to fourth in the World Ranking, and all is right in Weir's world with The Masters looming in six weeks.
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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