- The Augusta Chronicle - Friday, April 5, 2013

The two unlikely sudden-death playoff opponents in the 2003 Masters Tournament were at the center of the golf world when they walked onto the 10th tee of the Augusta National Golf Club late on a Sunday afternoon to settle the issue with a 73rd hole.

Minutes later, it was Mike Weir who raised his arms in triumph on the green, having tapped in for a bogey to beat Len Mattiace’s double-bogey to become the first left-handed winner of the Masters and the first Canadian to win a major.

While Weir was getting his green jacket slipped over his shoulders a few minutes later by Tiger Woods, Mattiace was choking back sobs in front of the media, the emotions of a long, grueling day boiling over.

Mattiace recovered enough to focus on the positives – the two-time PGA Tour winner had stood on the brink of winning golf’s most coveted tournament, an accomplishment he still cherishes today.

“It was a great week for me,” the 45-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., resident said recently on the 10th anniversary of his near miss. “I hit a lot of good shots and did a lot of good things. I tied for the low score in the Masters after 72 holes, which is something a lot of good players don’t get to experience.”

Weir, who had already won five times on the PGA Tour, was poised to use his first major championship as a springboard to join golf’s elite players of that time, such as Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III. Weir’s victory at Augusta was his third of the season and he eventually would end the year ranked fifth in the world.

“In my own mind, that was the next step,” said Weir, 42, who lives in Sandy, Utah. “I had won some nice tournaments – a World Golf Championship, the Tour Championship – and contended in some majors. But I hadn’t gotten the job done. So to win [at Augusta] was huge, in my own mind.”

Ten years later, neither has taken the career path they believed possible after that Masters. The short answer for both is that injuries led to swing problems, which led to dips in confidence. Neither player was among the longest of hitters (Weir was 68th in driving distance in 2003, Mattiace 153rd) but had carved out solid careers to that point based on accuracy, deft short games and putting.

When the accuracy went, even more pressure was put on their short games, resulting in too many putts for par or worse.

“I developed some bad habits,” Mattiace said. “The knees are fine. I haven’t had any issues with them for years.”

“[I’m] just trying to find a way to make things more consistent … play my kind of game, which is precision golf,” Weir said. “I haven’t found that yet.”

Short hitters take charge

Weir and Mattiace were on no one’s radar when the 2003 Masters began.

Woods, at the height of his game, had already won three times, including the World Golf Championship-Match Play and an 11-shot victory at Bay Hill, playing the final round in steady rain and with a stomach virus. He was going for his third consecutive Masters title, an unprecedented feat at Augusta.

The Augusta National had already begun a series of changes to add distance to the course. Heavy rain that washed out Monday’s practice round and accumulated 2 inches left the course wet, long and in the wheelhouse for Woods, and the game’s other bombers of the day.

Weir had won twice in 2003, the only other multiple winner on the Tour besides Woods. But he was eager to put a bad tournament in Atlanta the week before behind him. Mattiace, who had won at Los Angeles and Memphis the year before, had made 6-of-8 cuts and tied for eighth at Riviera. But he was smarting from a missed cut at his hometown event, The Players Championship, two weeks before the Masters.

Weir opened with 70, four shots off the lead. Mattiace struggled with 73.

Six birdies in the second round lifted Weir to a commanding lead. His 68 put him at 6-under-par 138, four shots clear of 18-hole leader Darren Clarke. Mattiace struggled again, with 74, and entered the weekend nine shots behind Weir.

In the meantime, the longest drivers on the PGA Tour were floundering. Woods made the cut on the number at 5-over. Fred Couples was only one clear of the cut line. Els shot 79 in the first round, Singh would go on to shoot in the 70s all four days and Love and Adam Scott never recovered from first-round 77s.

“Maybe because of the rain and how long the course was playing … after they made the changes that a long of the longer hitters were in contention,” Weir said. “It kind of worked in my favor. I was under the radar.”

Weir nearly shot himself out of the tournament the next day with 75. His lead was wrested away by veteran Jeff Maggert, who crashed the party by making birdie on five of his last six holes, including the three closing holes. Weir was in second, two shots behind, but Singh (70), Mickelson (72) and Woods (66) were lurking. Mattiace righted things a bit with 69 but was five shots off the lead.

The next day, Mattiace made his startling move. Birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 got him into red numbers for the first time that week. He then pitched in birdie from behind the mound on the left-front of the eighth green, a shot anyone would be hard-pressed to duplicate given 100 attempts.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mattiace drained a long birdie putt at No. 10, then hit a 4-wood to within 10 feet at No. 13 and made the eagle putt. Birdies at Nos. 15 and 16 gave Mattiace a two-shot lead for the Masters, with two holes to play.

Weir wasn’t making any mistakes behind him, and would go on to record a bogey-free 68. But Mattiace found himself on the 18th tee, 8-under for the day. As it turned out, par would win.

Mattiace hit driver off the tee, and the ball sliced into pine straw on the right. He had to pitch out, and his 9-iron for the third shot came to rest 35 feet from the hole. Mattiace two-putted for his 65 to finish at 7-under, then waited in the Butler Cabin for Weir to finish.

To this day, he refuses to second-guess himself for not hitting 3-wood off the tee.

“I’d do it again 100 times … it was a no-brainer,” Mattiace said. “The course was playing so wet and so long that 3-wood wasn’t a viable option. When you look back on some shots you always wonder if it was the right club. I don’t wonder about that one.”

Weir birdied both par-5s on the back, parred Nos. 16 and 17, then found his own difficulties at No. 18. Weir faced a 45-foot putt for birdie and the outright victory, but he left it 8 feet short.

The good news is that the putt was straight, slightly uphill. Weir jammed it in to forced the playoff.

“It was a big moment,” he said. “I was proud to be able to do that.”

Both players hit the fairway in the playoff but Mattiace then made the mistake of missing the green to the left, always a brutal up-and-down attempt. He was blocked by a tree from going right at the hole, and left himself with a 30-foot putt that he hit past the hole and onto the back fringe. He missed his bogey attempt.

Weir had hit the green and safely three-putted from 30 feet to win.

“Len played an incredible round of golf,” Weir said. “I’ve been there myself. It’s tough when you’re right there and you can taste it and you don’t pull it off.”

Despite his outward display of emotion after the round, Mattiace said he quickly put the tournament behind him.

“If you second-guess things you’ll drive yourself bonkers,” he said. “I would have liked to have won a green jacket but two or three days after the tournament, I had moved on.”

A tale of two slumps

Weir’s slide didn’t come right away. He successfully defended his Northern Trust Open championship in 2004 but after winning seven times in five years, he didn’t win again until a PGA Tour Fall Series event in 2007. Weir still maintained a respectable record, finishing no lower than 56th on the money list between 2004 and 2009 and going to the distance in the FedEx Cup Playoffs to the Tour Championship in 2008 and 2009.

However, the injuries began to mount. His neck hampered his game in 2005 but the worst was yet to come: two injuries to his right elbow that came from hitting shots in competition.

Weir first injured the elbow hitting a tree root at Hilton Head Island in the 2010 Heritage. He then aggravated it when he hit a shot out of deep rough at the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver during the 2011 Canadian Open.

Weir had made only two cuts in 14 starts before the injury in his native country. Last season, he missed the cut in all 14 PGA Tour starts he made, was 189th on the Tour in scoring average (75.56) and was 191st both in driving accuracy and greens in regulation.

This season, Weir had made only 2-of-8 cuts before qualifying for the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Then he aggravated a rib injury in the third round and had to withdraw.

Since finishing sixth in the Humana Challenge in 2010, Weir has failed to finish among the top 25 in a stroke-play event, a span of 55 tournaments. Since 2011, he’s made only 5-of-37 cuts.

Mattiace has fared even worse. He injured both knees during a fall while skiing in December 2003. He exhausted his PGA Tour eligibility for his two victories in 2002 after a 2006 season in which he finished 226th on the money list. Since 2007, he’s played 34 times on the PGA Tour and 77 on the Web.com Tour, and he’s only made 25 cuts.

His playoff loss to Weir was the last time Mattiace finished among the top-10 on the PGA Tour.

Both keep battling

Regardless of their setbacks, Weir and Mattiace say they have reason for optimism.

Mattiace was in contention at the Web.com Tour’s Panama Open in February before finishing with a tie for fourth – his first top-10 in 206 professional starts.

“I’m feeling great and I still have the passion,” Mattiace said. “What’s happened drives me harder. I’m still committed to this game 100 percent.”

Weir made his two cuts this season at top-drawer PGA Tour events at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill, and has shot in the 60s in the first round in three of his eight starts. His rib injury in Orlando set him back slightly but he plans to play this week at Augusta National.

“If I have to not hit any balls until Thursday, I won’t,” he said. “Maybe just putt a little bit. I really want to play. I know I’m going to be there.”

Family has kept both players grounded through difficult times. Both have two daughters and credit their wives with their backing at home.

“My wife is always saying that things happen for a reason,” Weir said. “Golf can be a very selfish game where you spend a lot of time away from your family, a lot of time by yourself working hard on your game and missing out on a lot of good things. Maybe this [his injuries] was a way to slow me down and enjoy my family.”

While Weir was likely set for life financially with a major championship among his eight PGA Tour titles, Mattiace has earned only $217,057 on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour since 2007 – just more than a third of his $648,000 runnerup check at the 2003 Masters. However, he said his family is “doing fine” financially, thanks to careful management of the nearly $6 million he earned on the course through the 2003 season.

He is able to send his daughters Gracee and Noelle to private school. Gracee, 15, is a budding volleyball star.

“Kristen and I and the girls live a pretty simple life,” he said. “They’ve always been my best supporters. Family has kept me grounded. There’s a lot of love there.”

Because Mattiace lost his exempt status six years ago, he and Weir haven’t often crossed paths.

“Maybe three times,” Mattiace said.

But they have maintained a mutual admiration for each other.

“Mike is a great player and an intense competitor,” Mattiace said. “He’ll be back.”

Weir also is hoping for the best for Mattiace.

“Len is a great guy, and he’s dealt with some injuries himself,” he said. “I know I felt for him that day. Even given the celebration of the moment for me, I still felt for him.”

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