Inside Mike Weir’s epic struggle to regain his form

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The lefty fixes his gaze down the fairway, then turns to address the Pro V1 teed up at his feet. A black wire loops down from his left earlobe, secured by a metal clamp that glistens in the Santa Monica sun. It runs from a battery-powered transmitter that’s velcroed to the back of his black ballcap.

Two men tower behind him inside the ropes. Their arms are crossed, their unsmiling faces shielded by sunglasses and hats. To an outsider, it might look like a bodyguard-toting VIP with a new toy enjoying a Tuesday afternoon round here at Riviera Country Club. But the big guys aren’t bodyguards, the device isn’t a toy, and the man wielding the TaylorMade R1 isn’t a Hollywood star. It’s Mike Weir.

But this is not the Mike Weir who won the Masters in a playoff 10 years ago; who climbed to No. 3 in the world rankings; who beat a guy named Tiger in match play and inspired Letterman to list the “Top 10 Messages Left on Mike Weir’s Answering Machine.” That Mike Weir was confident. He was a contender. This Mike Weir is neither of those things. This Mike Weir is 42, unranked and winless in six years. He has lost control of the ball and there is a titanium staple in his right elbow.

“What’s the deal on his head?” a fan asks Weir’s caddy, Danny Sahl. It’s not the first time Sahl has fielded this question during today’s practice round, two days before the Northern Trust Open. And it won’t be the last. “Don’t ask me,” Sahl shrugs. He picks up Weir’s bag and walks over to join his boss in the rough.

This is a device you won’t see on Tiger or Bubba or Brandt, only on a man desperate to get his game back. In 2012, you and Mike Weir made the same amount of money on the PGA Tour: zero. Weir didn’t make a cut in 14 events, and for a year and a half—18 straight tournaments—he didn’t play a single Sunday that mattered. He hasn’t placed better than 50th since 2010. He’s only playing a full tour schedule this year thanks to an exemption for being 18th in all-time earnings, at just shy of $27 million. There are 34 higher-ranked Canadians in the world right now—including the guy who carries his bag (Sahl is 891st). Weir doesn’t register because the Official World Golf Ranking stops at 1,500.

The decline of the greatest Canadian to swing a golf club and the only one to win a major started with an elbow injury and has spiralled into a vicious slump. Since 2010, Weir has gone through a myriad of coaches and listened to a slew of opinions. But nothing worked. His game disintegrated. One coach, off the record, called his swing “a wreck.” But Weir is describing the 2013 season as a comeback. The elbow pain is gone and he’s done switching coaches. The goal: to be ready for Augusta—to feel, even just a little bit, like the Mike Weir who wore that boyish grin when Tiger slipped the green jacket on his slim shoulders. And he is doing everything—physically and mentally—to make it happen.

That’s why, seven weeks out from the biggest four days in golf, Weir is wearing a mind-reading device on his head. The electrodes under his hat that leave red dents in his forehead are feeding neural activity data and everything from face tension to blinking rate into a tablet computer in the hands of the shorter of the two big guys trailing him, six-foot-two Aussie Henry Boulton. He’s the inventor of FocusBand, the gadget everyone who sees Weir during this practice round is wondering about. Boulton and his partner, six-foot-four Yankee Jason Goldsmith, assess each shot to see if Weir is “over-thinking,” or if he’s “doing without thinking.” Weir is trying to play out of his mind—in more ways than one—swinging so effortlessly that the process requires no thinking about mechanics. He’s looking for the same carefree mindset of the 10-year-old kid who biked to Huron Oaks Golf Course in tiny Brights Grove, Ont., every day after school and hit balls until one of his older brothers came to pick him up. Back then, golf was fun. Ask Weir if he had fun playing golf last year and he laughs.

He is one of the most popular guys on tour, and asking other golfers how they feel seeing the eight-time winner struggle is like watching a natural righty swing left-handed. It’s uncomfortable. Fellow Canadian touring pro Stephen Ames is known for speaking his mind, and even he clenches his teeth when asked about Weir. “It’s sad to see,” the 48-year-old Calgarian says, standing just off the practice green at Riviera. “He was such a good player for so many years, and then all of the sudden he’s just fallen off the world.”

Away from the course, Weir seems perfectly happy. He’s all smiles, sitting in the lobby of the beachside Santa Monica Marriott, wearing jeans and a white button-up with blue stripes. The dark hair on his head started retreating years ago, but it’s holding strong now, and the guy still manages to look 30-something. Before heading out for a photo shoot, he wonders whether the Marriott will let him take a roadie to the beach. The waitress smiles and hands him a Michelob Light in a coffee cup. On the beach, he slips off his Banana Republic loafers, rolls up his jeans and starts chipping shots into the Pacific. He even entertains doing the rest of the interview on a nearby Ferris Wheel. Weir says thank you constantly, weaves “eh” into conversation and he loves his Red Wings—he and his Canadian caddy talk hockey all the time.

But what Weir and Sahl don’t get into is the slump, or the frustration that comes with it. Sahl, a top player on the Canadian Tour, started looping for Weir a year ago and he says Weir hasn’t opened up to him about his struggle. Aside from his wife, Bricia, a few close friends and his sports psychologists—Rich Gordin (known to Weir as “Doc”) and Bob Rotella—Weir doesn’t talk about it much. He says his daughters Elle, 15, and Lili, 12, (“they have cellphones, they’re on Facebook and Insta… gram? Right?”) gives him perspective. He made sure he wasn’t “too down” off the course last year. He will admit—only after a bit of badgering—that it was the toughest of his career, having to rely on sponsors’ exemptions to get into tournaments after losing his Tour card. “It’s not where you want to be as a professional golfer,” Weir says. Pepper him with questions about how frustrating it must be to play so poorly—like that 83 he carded at the Byron Nelson last May, and the fact he didn’t break 70 in an official tournament in 2012—and he’ll joke about it: “Kristina’s trying to break me down!” Golfers don’t get into it, especially when they’re still stuck in the middle of a slump. It’s sensitive. Ernie Els is a good friend of Weir’s and the two veterans have talked about the frustrations of the last couple years. Asked what they discussed, Els smiles. “You know, stuff.” This is as far as The Big Easy will go: “It takes a lot of character to try and come back. It’s not a lot of fun.”

A golfer’s struggle is a personal thing and Weir’s is no different. He worked through the toughest times—getting through his injury—solo. “It felt like my own quest, really,” he says, quietly. “It’s awkward, I think, to talk to any other player about it.” The most difficult part on the course the past two years was coming to the realization that his ability to hit any shot he wants is gone. “There were times when I thought, ‘What’s this ball going to do?’ I’m trying to hit a fade and it hooks,” he says. “It’s tough to take. Then you’re standing on the next tee and you have to hook it. Your brain is going, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

The thunderous applause that follows Weir’s introduction before round one at Riviera is the type otherwise reserved for stars like Phil and Bubba. He’s no longer a star, but the five-foot-nine, 155-lb. Canadian remains one of the PGA’s best-liked players. He doesn’t walk with Dustin Johnson’s swagger or glad-hand like Phil. Weir is genuine and humble—the guy who, the day after he won the Masters, was stunned when thousands showed up at a Toronto Sears store to meet him. Today, his opening drive lands in the rough on the left. The approach flies the green and lands in a bunker on the right. “Wow,” Weir says, eyebrows raised under the brim of his white Thomson Reuters hat. His bunker shot isn’t any better, rolling across the green and dropping into the sand on the other side. Escape attempt No. 2 nearly drops into the hole. Weir taps in the two-foot bogey putt and walks over to the next hole, a gallery 25-strong in tow. It’s not a promising start. His second drive of the day on the 583-yard par 4 lands right beside a sycamore tree.

This kind of lie, nestled up against a tree, is where all the trouble started. In April 2010—winless in two and a half years and ranked 46th in the world—Weir hit a tree root at the Verizon Heritage, and it sent a stinger up his right elbow. He continued to play, often badly, through the pain. He would take a few weeks off, rehab the injury, play again and re-aggravate the elbow. The cycle went on for more than a year. As his older brother Jim says, Mike is stubborn. “I’ve seen what he had to do just to be able to tee it up. The ice baths, the rehab. It was exhausting to watch,” says Jim. “His body was breaking down.” It got so bad that, in December 2010, Weir’s friend of 27 years and caddy of the previous 12, Brennan Little, left him for Sean O’Hair. Little and Weir came up together through the ranks of junior golf in Ontario, then travelled together while they played the Canadian Tour. Weir was in Little’s wedding. “You never want to leave the guy,” Little says. But he has a wife and two sons to provide for. “His game was regressing. I knew something wasn’t right.”

In trying to protect himself from pain in that lead elbow, Weir was his own worst enemy and he developed bad swing habits. “I thought I could get through it, so I kept playing,” he says. “You don’t want to sound like you’re whining and complaining.” Weir learned that lesson early: No whining, no complaining. At 11, when he knocked his two front teeth out, he told his mom, Rowie, that he’d fallen. Jim actually punched them out with his hockey stick.

Weir should not have been playing at the Canadian Open in July 2011, but he wasn’t going to miss it. This is the guy who politely corrects announcers at tournaments when he’s introduced as “Mike Weir from Sandy, Utah” even though he’s lived there for more than 20 years. His golf bag features no fancy head covers, aside from one decorated with maple leafs for his putter. At his Masters champions dinner, elk was served and Molson Canadian cracked open for guests. But that Friday morning at Shaughnessy in Vancouver, the pain was so bad Weir couldn’t even open a bottle of water. He winced through six holes and withdrew at three-over-par.

An MRI the next day discovered a nearly torn extensor tendon in Weir’s right elbow—he went under the knife three weeks later. The elbow was cleaned up, the tendon completely severed then stapled back onto the bone. For the next three months, the only golf Weir played was in his mind. His arm in a sling, he sat in front of the big screen in the basement of his 14,000-sq.-ft. home (it includes an indoor driving range) and visualized good rounds of golf. “The days felt long,” Weir says. He couldn’t hit a ball off the ground for five months, and when he returned to the Tour in 2012, he hadn’t played a tournament in seven. The Mike Weir who teed it up at Pebble Beach in February 2012 had a weakened and less flexible right elbow, and a swing he wasn’t comfortable with. The more bad shots Weir hit, the more his confidence wavered, the more he thought about his swing. The physical decline fed into a mental decline. And you can’t staple confidence back together.

The view for his 200-yard approach shot is all tree. Weir stands on No. 18 in front of a California sycamore, his ball less than a foot away from its base. He takes his five iron back and comes down hard on the ball with a short chopper, halting his follow-through so he doesn’t strike bark. He peeks around the tree to see his ball hook within 20 feet of the flag, just left. His lips break into a small smile and he fires up a wave for the appreciative gallery. This is the Mike Weir fans remember, the back-to-back winner here at Riviera in 2003 and 2004. There are flashes of that guy all day long, though rarely do they come off the tee. It’s the irons and short game. Els says when Weir’s on, he’s the best chipper and putter on the planet.

When the world’s best golfers are off and the winning stops, the easiest fix is a coaching change. The balance between the mental and physical is so delicate that a new coach can help a guy get over a mental hump. Weir’s search for answers started years before he hit that tree root in Hilton Head, S.C. In November 2006, he dropped his coach of a decade, Mike Wilson, his only instructor through seven Tour wins. Weir was winless in nearly three years and he’d fallen to 44th in the world when he sought out the help of swing coaches Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett. “He felt like he was barely hanging on,” Plummer says. Weir won the Fry’s Open in October 2007 and finished 14th on the money list in 2008. By February 2009, he was back inside the world’s top 20. But Plummer says he and Weir (whom he calls “a pretty unwieldy stallion”) butted heads routinely. Weir put too much stock in the advice of his sports psychologists, says Plummer, who took issue with Rotella’s advice that Weir go on vacation before big tournaments. “When he hits bad shots, they tell him he’s supremely talented—literally he’s touched by the hand of God, that he’s a stud, not to worry about it,” the coach says. “So he looks for someone to blame. There’s this whole thing of him protecting his ego so that he could perform, so he wouldn’t get nervous.”

Weir says that under Bennett and Plummer, his swing got too technical, and it hurt his feel. In April 2009, he moved on. “I never got to my subconscious there,” he says. “I take full responsibility for that. It wasn’t where I wanted to be.” Plummer and Bennett have coached 10 Tour winners, including Aaron Baddeley and J.J. Henry. “Working with Mike is hard,” Plummer says. “There were a lot of people involved.”
Weir bounced around over the next three years. He worked on his own. He went back to Wilson, took lessons from David Leadbetter, Butch Harmon, Brian Manzella and Grant Waite. He interviewed a handful of other coaches to get their opinions on his swing. “I was confused about what I was doing and where the ball was flying,” he says. “I tried some old things that used to work, and they didn’t work anymore.” Two weeks before the 2011 Canadian Open in Vancouver, Weir went back to Plummer. “He was grasping,” the coach says. “It wasn’t that he was playing terrible, but I could see the emotion involved. He had hit too many bad shots. He was insecure.” It didn’t help that all eyes were on the Canadian on his home turf, though not for long. Plummer didn’t know Weir was injured until he withdrew from the Canadian Open. Weir never mentioned the pain. No whining, no complaining.

The fog rolls in quickly at Riviera, but Weir gets his round in before the tournament is called for the day. He cards a four-over 75, chats with fans and signs a glove for a guy who drove all the way from Calgary to see him. For the first time in six weeks, Mike Weir doesn’t hit balls after his round. But only because he can’t see them.

Hard work has been Weir’s therapy the past two years, every shot an attempt to pull himself out of this rut. On the driving range earlier in the week, while Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell chat between rips, Weir works his driver in silence at the far side, closest to the net, approaching each ball with the same four steps and stare he uses inside the ropes. He hits 300 to 400 balls a day, all business. Before his practice round at Riviera, Weir attended a conference at USC to learn how to improve his club speed. He’s an avid skier and fisherman—but this off-season, he went skiing only once, with his daughters, and his brothers still haven’t heard any plans for a fishing trip. He’s too busy grinding. “He’s not a super-talent,” Little says of Weir. “What he got, he worked for.”

Weir went to qualifying school six times before he earned his rookie season on Tour in 1998 as a 27-year-old, after nearly everyone told him he was too small and not long enough off the tee (his 270.4-yard average drive ranks fourth-last out of 178 golfers in 2013). Weir won his first tournament—fittingly, the Air Canada Championship—a year later. Fifteen years after that, here he is again, working to quiet critics—not that he pays any attention to them. “I don’t need somebody else telling me that I’m playing poorly,” Weir says. “I know. I’m living it. But I’m also the one who’s up at four in the morning working out and doing everything I can to make it better.”

Mike Weir does not need this game for the money. He’s won millions and built an empire under his name that includes wine, golf wear and a course design company. But mention the words “quit” or “retire” and it wipes the smile from his face. Weir is not here for the fame (the best part of living in Utah is he doesn’t get mobbed at the grocery store) or the cash (he’s made $27,384 over the past two years, so he would have fared better working at McDonald’s). Not much has changed since he was 10 and biking to the course; Weir still loves the game despite the fact it’s beating him up. He lights up when he talks about being able to practise pain-free.

Weir’s phone rings. It’s his coach, Grant Waite. A Tour pro-turned-instructor whose client list includes Jason Day, Waite began working with Weir formally in May 2012, though they started talking golf a year earlier. Waite is not only rebuilding Weir’s swing and stripping away bad habits, he’s also rewiring Weir’s mind—the marriage of mental and physical approaches that Weir has been seeking. It was Waite who introduced Weir to the FocusBand team (they come at a cost of $5,000 a week, plus $5,000 for equipment) and the idea of scientifically tracking when he’s over-thinking. Weir is in search of what’s called the Mushin state, a martial arts–born version of “The Zone.”  “That’s going to allow his psyche to get back to the level where he needs to be to compete,” Waite says.

Weir’s right elbow is 95 percent back to pre-surgery strength and flexibility, which he says might be as good as it gets. There has been progress (in January, he carded his lowest round in more than two years, a 67 at the Humana Challenge) but no consistency (he triple-bogeyed the last hole and missed the cut by three). Weir didn’t talk to reporters after that Friday round because he didn’t want to hear the popular refrain about his year-and-a-half missed-cut streak (he broke it one week later at Torrey Pines). “I’m not trying to make cuts,” Weir says. He’s not smiling. “I’m trying to get into contention to win. At some point here, it’ll happen.”

Weir swears he’s never doubted his comeback. He says he’ll win again. Seven weeks out from Augusta and that 10-year anniversary, though, he admits he isn’t close. Asked how comfortable he is with his swing, he says 50 percent. “Some days I feel very good,” Weir says, “but still conscious.”

Kristina Rutherford is a staff writer at Sportsnet magazine

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