Weir named Canadian male athlete of the year

Golfer Mike Weir of Bright's Grove, Ont., got the swing vote in balloting for the Lionel Conacher Award - enough, in fact, to win the Award, which is handed out to the Canadian male athlete of the year for 2000.

Weir's victory comes on the heels of a 2000 campaign that put an exclamation point on his breakthrough in 1999, and the voting for the award, which tends to recognize athletes who make a sizeable international impact, reflected his rapid ascent in the gold world.

Collecting 73 of a possible 168 first-place votes and 305 points from sports writers and broadcasters across Canada, Weir won by a surprisingly wide margin over a pair of Canadian Olympic heroes, pulling in more first-place votes than Sydney gold medallists Simon Whitfield and Daniel Igali combined.

Whitfield received 37 first-place votes and 206 points for his stunning victory in the Olympic triathlon, while the Nigerian-born Igali, who provided several of the most touching moments from a Canadian perspective at the Sydney Games with his freestyle wrestling win, received 26 first-place votes and 156.5 points.

Despite becoming the first player since Bobby Orr to win both the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman and the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues could do no better than fourth in voting with 86 points.

The Dallas Mavericks' Steve Nash, who almost willed the upstart Canadian men's basketball team to a medal in Sydney and who is emerging as one of the NBA's smartest and most effective point guards, was fifth with 78 points.

Further down the list were Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, who moved ahead of Terry Sawchuk into first on the all-time wins list; Paralympic wheelchair-racing champion Jeff Adams; World Cup champion speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon, who must be wondering what he has to do to turn more heads in his own country; Florida Marlins pitcher Ryan Dempster; and B.C. Lions running back Sean Millington, who was named the Outstanding Canadian player both for the CFL's regular season and the Grey Cup.

But in a year when there was no shortage of premium Canadian athletes, voters were most swayed by the rise to the upper ranks of the PGA by Weir at a time when Tiger Woods has propelled golf to an unprecedentedly high profile.

"I did have a good feeling going into this year," said Weir. "Last year, winning my first time (at the Air Canada Championship), made me really feel like I belonged on the Tour and felt like I wasn't just out there making a cheque. I was out there to try to win golf tournaments.

"This year I felt I wanted to win some more. I got off to a pretty good start -- I didn't win anything at the beginning of the year but I had some good solid finishes and the way I finished off the year was probably beyond what I would have ever expected."

After making steady improvements in his game throughout 1999 and 2000, Weir finally won big in November with a brilliant performance at the American Express Championship at Sotogrande, Spain, largely by keeping clear of trouble on a devilish 17th hole that proved to be the final-round undoing of Tiger Woods, Nick Price and Lee Westwood, among others.

Woods, who was named the Associated Press's male athlete of the year earlier in the week, finished fourth in the tournament.

Weir continued to impress as the top player on the International Team at the Presidents Cup tournament.

"It was a big goal of mine at the beginning of the year to make that team so when it came around to tournament week, I was really very focused and ready to play," he said.

"I prepared very well, I played well the weeks leading into it and things seemed to peak during that week. It's probably the best golf I've played in my life."

If the peaks were higher for Weir in 2000, his season was not the roller coaster he's endured in the recent past. He made the cut in 16 consecutive tour stops - fourth best on the PGA in that department, and finished in the top 10 in eight tournaments en route to winning $2,547,829, good for sixth on the PGA money list.

"In '99 I did have a great year, but there were more up and downs," said Weir. "This year was much more consistent. I think my game's just rounding into shape and I think just experience has taught me not to waste so many shots -- where I missed the cut by one or two shots, I'm conserving those shots better and thus becoming more consistent."

Weir is the first golfer to claim the Lionel Conacher Award, named after the all-around sports legend who was named Canada's greatest male athlete of the first half of the century, since Sandy Somerville in 1932. That year, Somerville became the first foreign golfer to win the U.S. Amateur title.

While George Knudson is still widely considered the greatest male golfer Canada has ever produced, Knudson's timing kept him from winning the award. He won two consecutive PGA tournaments in 1968, but Ferguson Jenkins was a 20-game winner with the Chicago Cubs that year. In 1969, Knudson finished in a tie for second at the Masters, but Ottawa Roughriders quarterback Russ Jackson won the award.

And for the first time, the Canadian male and female athlete awards were swept by golfers in 2000 - and if Karrie Webb had managed to moved ahead of Marion Jones and Venus Williams, golfers would have swept the AP awards, too. Charlottetown, P.E.I..'s Lorie Kane won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as female athlete of the year Wednesday.

"It's good for our sport," said Kane.

"It's never too late to challenge your dream," she added. "I know that we have a lot of great aspiring athletes who would like to be where Mike and I are. I think the success that we have had breeds success for them."