Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Garcia needs to recapture his past

The golfing establishment wants Sergio Garcia to grow up. But Garcia, at 29 a chronic whiner still looking for his first major, would be better off doing something else on the eve of this week’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
He should look back. Ten years, to be exact. At the magical shot that heralded his arrival in the sport’s consciousness.
It’ll be easy enough for him to find the videotape.
There’s the golf ball on a virtually impossible lie, between the roots of an oak tree on the 16th hole at Medinah Country Club during the final round of the 1999 PGA.
There’s the daring swing, a 6-iron whipping through the air on a sharp downward plane.
And there’s the reaction: a lanky, 19-year-old Spaniard sprinting up the fairway, leaping into the air, tracking a remarkable shot that traveled 189 yards onto the green and gave him a chance for a pivotal birdie as he pursued Tiger Woods.
That Garcia missed the putt and lost to Woods by one shot was almost irrelevant. The unbridled joy that lifted him off the 16th fairway at Medinah and elevated his game convinced so many that he’d one day challenge Woods for tour supremacy. But before-and-after photos show the past decade has worn him down like a persimmon wood.
Sergio Garcia reacts in amazement to his shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the 1999 PGA.
(Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
“That’s a different Sergio than he is now,” said Fred Funk, a Champions Tour pro. “That was the youthful, exuberant Sergio that everybody wanted to watch.”
The Garcia of today too often moans, or sulks, or grumbles.
“It’s a beautiful game and it’s also a very hard one,” Garcia told reporters earlier this year. “ … You hope or you think you can win everything and it’s going to be easy, and it’s not.”
While his attitude has soured and reality has set in, Garcia’s game has changed, too. And here’s the strange part: It has gotten better. Considerably.
“I personally think Sergio is the best player out there, tee to green,” said Tony Jacklin, a two-time major winner who, at 65, remains the most successful European Ryder Cup captain ever. “Tiger’s game is not as under control tee to green as Sergio’s game. I’d back Sergio all day long with a driver in his hand. But that’s not all it’s about.”
No, there also is putting and poise, both of which have betrayed Garcia over and over, and at the worst possible moments. And when his putting goes awry, and he loses his poise, the whiner rears its ugly head.
At the 2002 U.S. Open, when Garcia was among the golfers forced to play through rain, he complained the USGA would have halted play if Woods hadn’t finished his round in the morning. When the fans at Bethpage Black heckled him for the excessive waggles he took before each shot, Garcia responded with an obscene gesture.
After blowing a three-shot lead during the final round of the 2007 British Open, and losing a four-hole playoff to Padraig Harrington, Garcia said: “I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field.”
Instead of blaming himself, Garcia blamed bad luck.
After he three-putted a hole at Doral that same year, he spit into the cup – never mind the players behind him that would have to reach into it. And he all but spit into the face of Augusta National earlier this year. After shooting 75 and 74 in low-scoring conditions on the final two days, he did not leave the most venerable course in golf before he impugned it.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “It’s too tricky. Even when it’s dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It’s too much of a guessing game. They can do whatever they want. It’s not my problem. I just come here and play and then go home.”
Sergio Garcia was not pleased with having to play through rain after trailing Tiger Woods during the 2002 U.S. Open.
(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Garcia issued an apology but later in the year seemed less apologetic.
“For good and for worse, what you see is what you get,” he said.
With John Daly no longer frequenting Hooters, the media will take what it can get in a sport where true characters are hard to find. David Feherty, the zany CBS golf commentator, is among those hoping Garcia continues to speak freely, and act ornery, even if it ticks off the golf establishment and the etiquette police.
“He’s beautifully human,” Feherty said. “Whereas so many other guys that go out there and have similar careers to Sergio’s if you look at their numbers, but to me they’re faceless, they’re nameless, you don’t really have much of an opinion on them. With Sergio, you either love the guy or you can’t stand him, one or the other, and I like that.”
Feherty said he sees similarities between Garcia and former tennis star John McEnroe.
“You had a lot of people who’d say, ‘He shouldn’t be allowed on the tennis court,’ and this and that,” Feherty said. “Well, they watched. They all watched because it was always worth watching. A lot of people who complain about [Garcia], saying he’s whining … they love to see him play well.”
Sergio Garcia is 116th on the money list this year.
(Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Yet McEnroe’s rants were borne of competitive fire – OK, and perhaps a little immaturity – that helped propel him to seven Grand Slams. Garcia’s antics appear to stem from escalating frustration and defeatism after several near-misses in his pursuit of a major.
A second-place finish to Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship. Tied for fourth at the 2004 Masters. Tied for third at the 2005 U.S. Open. Second at the 2007 British Open. Second again at the 2008 PGA.
“The longer it goes on, the harder it is to win a major,” Jacklin said of Garcia’s quest. “Any golfer’s greatest enemy is self doubt. That’s the whole deal really. It’s a mind game. … The way his body language is, often he relates to me as being a bit unsure and of course it manifests itself in results.”
But here’s the thing about Garcia: His driving, iron play and chipping is so good, he’ll be in contention for other majors, even if it’s not at Hazeltine. That means there will be more chances for him to moan, sulk, grumble and fail. And opportunities to fulfill the promise first seen a decade ago.
An end of excuse-making, spitting and impertinent remarks might be a wise thing for Garcia. But that can wait.
“After that round was over, I remember saying to the media that Sergio was like a breath of fresh air out here because he was so young and so energetic and his attitude was so great, like a kid,” said Stewart Cink, who was paired with Garcia during the final round at Medinah. “I had fun playing with him that day.”
It was just as clear Garcia had fun playing. Today his body language suggests otherwise, and Garcia was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. But he should be looking for answers rather than answering questions.
This week, he should watch the unforgettable moment from the 1999 PGA again and again, and pay no more attention to the actual shot than his sprint up the fairway and leap into the air. It’s time for Garcia to recapture the enthusiasm and joy exuded by the golfer captured on videotape.
Then he can worry about growing up.

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