Do we take it for granted now when Canadians are great at things the whole world cares about?
Have we gotten used to it?
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Mike Weir’s win at The Masters, the most prestigious golf tournament of them all and one of the signature events in sports.
We weren’t used to it then. Quite the opposite.
It’s difficult to describe what the moment was like, or what it meant to Canadian sports fans, and perhaps to Canadian athletes. Was Weir’s win – the high point in what has been an impressive career – a one-off curiosity? Was it the start of something, the end of something?
What is known for sure is that at the time it had meaning. Weir was – outside of the usual hockey suspects – the highest profile athlete Canada had at the time; one of the very few who was excelling in a sport that was truly global in scope.
He grew up watching hockey stars then found hockey stars spending their grown-up years watching him. Wayne Gretzky became a pal; Paul Coffey jetted off at a moment’s notice to walk the final 36 holes with Weir at Augusta.
A decade later, the four-time Stanley Cup winner can still rattle off various shots Weir made as he carved out a bogey-free round of 68 after starting the day in the lead.
“As a Canadian, a former athlete and all of that, you talk about being proud to be Canadian, that’s how I felt that day,” Coffey says. “There’s something about being Canadian and watching a Canadian do well in a tough environment. It was an amazing moment.”
The Masters was the peak of a slow build in Weir’s growing celebrity. He was mobbed at public appearances and engulfed by a lengthy standing ovation at the Air Canada Centre when he dropped the puck at a Maple Leafs playoff game the Monday after his win.
Golf, driven by Tiger Woods, was in the ascendance and Weir gave Canada a legitimate foothold as he won seven titles in a span of five years and eight overall, tied with George Knudson for most ever by a Canadian. It seems safe to say the pair won’t turn into a threesome anytime soon.
Weir had won twice that season heading into the Masters, recovering nicely from a sub-par 2002 season. Next thing you know God and Jim Nantz were watching a guy who could safely be described as quintessentially Canadian – a feisty, under-sized hockey player from small-town Ontario who turned to golf when his NHL dreams weren’t happening – roll in an eight-foot par putt in the fading early evening light to force a playoff he won on the first hole.
“Well, on a regular day, a Thursday morning on the 18th hole, an eight-footer straight up the hill, you’re going to make quite a few of them,” Weir said of his career-defining knee knocker during a recent teleconference. “But a do-or-die putt at a major championship, win or lose, you’d be my guest in guessing how many guys are going to make that putt. I don’t think a whole lot.”
Through the stillness, the putt rolled before eventually tumbling in and Canada went crazy. Weir went on to win the Masters on the first hole of the sudden-death playoff. It was Tiger Woods who put the famous green jacket on him.
Then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was watching from his hotel room in Santo Domingo during his official visit to the Dominican Republic. He opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate and called Weir that night.
“The whole country is extremely proud of you,” Chretien told him. “You are so cool and so good … [but] we were jumping in the room when you won.”
Weir thanked all the Canadians who had followed him through four rain-soaked rounds in Georgia and the hundreds of thousands more who followed along on television at home.
“And I’d like to thank all the fans back in Canada,” Weir said. “Hopefully, some young kid is watching today and will be inspired to be here wearing a green jacket someday himself.”
That day is still some time coming. Perhaps the best advertisement for the difficulty of Weir’s feat and his remarkable run from 1999 to 2004, when he won seven of his eight victories on Tour and was a fixture in the top-10 of the World Rankings, is that no Canadian has come even remotely close to matching it since. It may never happen.
But that doesn’t mean Canadians haven’t emerged as world class in other sports outside our more traditional areas of athletic expertise. We’ve almost become used to it.
The best hitter in baseball might by Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds. The Major Leagues are filled with Canadian passports. We’ve seen Steve Nash come and go as the best point guard in the NBA and twice the league’s MVP. We kicked the world’s butt, snow and ice division, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Christine Sinclair might be the best female soccer player in the world and made her case at the 2012 Summer Games. Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win one of cycling’s major tour events when he stormed back on the final day to win the Giro d’Italia last summer.
Milos Raonic, 22, is already the best Canadian male tennis player we’ve ever had and, at No.15 in the world, seems poised to make an unprecedented push into the rarified air of the sports elite.
And if Andrew Wiggins stays on course and becomes the No.1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, he will only be the highest profile player of perhaps a half-dozen athletes taken in the first round of the draft over the course of three years, making Canada a potential medal contender at World Championships and Olympics for the next decade of more.
None of that was on the horizon when Weir won. In a perfect storybook arc, Weir would be returning to Augusta this week on something more than a nostalgia kick. He’s just 42, relatively young for a golfer, but injuries and the game’s constant evolution to favour a power-based approach make it unlikely that Weir will be able to revisit is glorious past. He hasn’t won a Tour event since 2007. Bothered by a rib injury, he may not even play in The Masters this week.
But Weir’s current form or the busy job of keeping up with Canadians in all sports pushing the limits and challenging to be among the best shouldn’t obscure what he did or how much it mattered.
His triumphant four days in April ten years ago this month will remain one of the most important Canadian sports stories ever told and forever a key chapter in the book of how Canadian athletes have since taken over the sporting world.