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Weir fears loss of creative shots

Sunday, April 02, 2006

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Golf's "Big Five" fraternity of the top-ranked players in the world gets most of the attention when the sport turns to its major season.

2003 Masters champion Mike Weir says the lengthening and tightening of Augusta National Golf Club's course detract from the premium on creative shot selection envisioned by Bobby Jones. (Annette M. Drowlette/Staff)

But when all eyes are on Augusta National Golf Club this week, there is a smaller faction who will be getting their share of publicity on an elongated course many are dreading.

Let's call them the "Little Six," a cluster of medium- and short-range hitters who best represent their ilk's chances against golf's power elite: Jose Maria Olazabal, Luke Donald, Chris DiMarco, Jim Furyk, David Toms and Mike Weir.

At the Masters Tournament, Weir might be the president of the club because he's the only one to win since they started supersizing the course. That might seem like a left-handed compliment to the 2003 champion, but it's not a bad reputation to have.

"I know I can still do it," Weir said of winning again on a course with an additional 155 yards. "But does it make it harder? Yeah, no question."

Judging from his performance since the course was first stretched in 2002, there is still room for the shorter hitters to make noise. The members of the Little Six account for nine top-10 finishes in those four years, including two each by Weir, DiMarco and Olazabal. A few others - Bernhard Langer, Len Mattiace and Jeff Maggert - also represented the short-knocker club.

Weir has battled a case of oscillating prowess practically his whole career. After rising to prominence from 1999 to 2001, he endured a dreadful 2002. Weir bounced back with his best career season in 2003, posting three wins, including the Masters, only to slowly drift back into the pack.

Weir, who had three top-10 finishes in his first eight tournaments this year, said Augusta National tests a golfer's total game. (Annette M. Drowlette/Staff)

His success seems on the uptick in 2006; he's managed three top-10s in eight starts. Heading into Augusta National, Weir hopes he's in similar shape as the year he won.

"You have to have all aspects of your game clicking there," Weir said. "You can't fake it at all. Some tournaments out here you can not have your best stuff but have an awesome week with your putter and maybe win. It's tough to find your game there and expect to do well."

Weir had a pretty awesome putting week when he beat Mattiace on the first sudden-death playoff hole in 2003. He wasn't dropping putts from ridiculous lengths, only making everything he saw inside of 10 feet.

Now he'll face a course that's been stretched and tightened. It's not a combination that particularly thrills Weir.

"Having rough and having that many trees out there is what they didn't have to do," Weir said. "That really changed the golf course and totally made it a different golf course.

"I don't mind them adding length - that's fine. But Augusta has always been its own golf course because Bobby Jones wanted you to be about (creating) shots out of the trees or from different positions and angles. It gives you that option of trying to go for it. Whereas now if you hit it in the rough or trees, you might see guys laying up and wedging it on more. You're not going to see some daring shots that you've seen in the past.

"So, to me, it's taken some of the excitement and drama and creativity away from some of the guys."

Weir missed the cut when he defended at Augusta in 2004, but he tied for fifth last year despite never really being in contention.

"I feel a lot better this year than last year or even '04 as the defending champion when I didn't feel maybe as good about my game as I do right now," he said. "I was searching just a little bit."

Weir is still searching for the best way to handle success. Unlike Tiger Woods, Weir has never been a strong closer when he holds the lead. Only one of his seven PGA Tour victories came as the leader, and even then he blew every bit of a five-stroke lead before gathering himself to win by one on the last hole of the 2004 tournament at Riviera.

His typically poor history as a leader was reinforced again this year at both Pebble Beach and the WGC-Match Play tournament. He closed with a 78 to lose to first-time winner Arron Oberholser at Pebble and frittered away a four-up lead with four to play in a third-round match against eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy at La Costa.

Weir counts neither as a setback.

"There are positives," he said. "I'm playing well."

It will take a stronger effort to represent the Little Six again at Augusta.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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