By Steve Keating
OAKVILLE, Ontario (Reuters) - It was approaching noon early into the second round of the Canadian Open on Friday when a blast from the past popped up on the leaderboard, sending a wave of excitement rolling across Glen Abbey Golf Club.
Though the sight of Mike Weir's name among the contenders was once a familiar one on the PGA Tour, the little Canadian lefty's brief cameo appearance in the top three on a sun-kissed day was more about nostalgia than the now for the hordes of golf fans who basked in their memories as much as in the moment.
In reality, Weir's five-under 67 was nothing more than a small positive step in a long, grinding comeback by the 2003 Masters champion and Canadian sporting icon, who has not tasted victory for six years as his world ranking languishes below 500.
With each hole and each birdie, the galleries swelled, recalling scenes from Weir's glory days when his name was often mentioned in the same sentence as hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
Playing the back nine first on the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout, Weir began his day with birdies on his opening two holes and by the time he reached his 15th tee at seven under, there was an unmistakable buzz that something special was happening.
But that magical feeling disappeared in a scrambling finish, the gallery, now in the thousands, groaning as he recorded his first bogey at the sixth and then erupting in thundering approval when he hit back with a birdie at the eighth.
The round would end in deflating fashion as Weir made back-to-back bogeys but he walked off the course content that he had finally given his fans good reason to watch him play.
"It's wonderful. There's not really anybody on tour that kind of has anything like this, to have support like that," said Weir, who will start Saturday's third round at four under for the tournament, nine strokes behind leader Hunter Mahan.
"It's up to us Canadians when we come up here. To see the gallery support today as I got going and got rolling, you can really feed off that and I did do that, so it was a lot of fun.
"Yesterday I didn't give them much to cheer about, one birdie ... really haven't given them much to cheer about the last couple of years, so to get things going today is a good feeling, to finally get with my game."
Weir became the first Canadian to wear the green jacket and the first left-hander to triumph at Augusta with his Masters victory, an achievement celebrated in his hockey-mad homeland as if he had scored the gold medal winning goal at an Olympics.
Following that breakthrough for his first major crown, Weir landed two more PGA Tour wins, one in 2004 and another in 2007 for the most recent of his eight career titles.
Since then, however, he has endured mostly lean and challenging years fraught with injury, including surgery in 2011 to repair the extensor tendon in his right elbow.
Weir has made the cut in just 10 PGA Tour events over the last three years, but eight of those have come this season, giving him hope that he has finally turned the corner on the long road back.
"I've been dancing around really good numbers here for a while, and that was a nice solid one for sure with a chance," he said of his 67.
"Could have been a really good one, but it was up there with one of the better rounds this year so far."
For almost two decades, Weir had been the standard bearer for Canadian golf and he proved on Friday that he is still among the country's best despite what the rankings say.
Eighteen Canadians teed off in Thursday's opening round in a bid to become the first home-grown winner of the national championship since Pat Fletcher in 1954, but only four survived the cut.
"It's hard not to (feel the pressure)," said Weir, who came agonizingly close to winning the Canadian Open in 2004 before being beaten in a playoff by Fijian Vijay Singh.
"You try to lessen that a little bit but you want to play well in front of your fans and I'm from close by, just a couple hours away, got a lot of friends and family here, so you want to play well in front of them."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)