The first time Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia challenged each other in a meaningful tournament, Tiger won the battle but Sergio stole the stage. Since that memorable tussle at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club, however, Woods has owned the game’s spotlight while Garcia has wilted under it, failing to discover the full measure of promise he appeared to have.
Saturday at The Players Championship, the rivalry has the opportunity for a grand renewal as the two are paired in the final group at TPC Sawgrass with continued dominance on Tiger’s mind and a level of redemption at hand for Garcia.
Following a solid opening 68 on Thursday, Sergio carded the round of the day Friday with a hot-putting seven-under 65 that earned him the solo lead at the halfway point at 11-under par. Playing a group behind Garcia, Tiger kept pace with a second straight 67 to finish the second round at 10-under, earning him the Saturday date with Sergio.
While this pairing isn't in a major championship, it certainly has sparked memories of the terrific battle the two staged at Medinah in 1999. There, Woods was establishing himself as the world’s best player and Garcia was showing the stuff to make him a significant challenger to that title even at the tender age of 19.
Playing a group apart, Woods enjoyed a comfortable lead over Sergio midway through the round only to see the Spaniard come roaring back to get within a shot of Tiger with a hole to play.
Woods made some crucial putts down the stretch to win his second major title, but it was Sergio who got the attention with a flamboyant style and youthful energy that hadn't been seen since fellow countryman Seve Ballesteros many years before.
In fact, Sergio's legendary shot from the base of a tree on 16 in that final round is still talked about today.
Following the tournament, the taste of a rivalry with magnetic personalities and tons of talent had the golf world salivating for more.
Yet it turns out only Woods was up to the measure of a great champion. Since the 1999 PGA Championship, Tiger has gone on to win 12 more majors while Garcia has struggled with putting, confidence and consistency, failing to win a single major title and really only threatening in a few of them—including two that prominently featured who else but Woods.
The duo was paired together in the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where Woods would win the matchup and the major, painfully watching as Garcia was ripped by New York fans for his slow play and multiple waggles.
Four years later, they found each other again in the final group of the 2006 British Open at Hoylake, where Woods would again deny Sergio a taste of the greatness he seemed destined for seven years earlier.
Trailing Woods by one to start the day, Garcia struggled to a 73 while being forced to watch Tiger fire a classic five-under 67 to win by two shots over Chris DiMarco. The major was the 11th of Woods’ career and the first since his father’s death two months earlier. For Sergio it was further disappointment that cut away at his fragile psyche and confidence.
There’s been other pairings between the two PGA Tour mega stars but not with both playing so well and contending in a tournament of such significance to the both of them.
Woods hasn't won The Players since 2001, hasn't claimed a major since 2008 and has struggled mightily in the PGA Tour’s signature event during much of his career.
For his part, Garcia won The Players in 2008 but doesn't have much else to hang his hat on during his roller coaster of a career that simply hasn't lived up to expectations, fair or otherwise, that Sergio had of him after Medinah.
So Saturday, the two tussle with the golf world watching and some significant talent chasing.
Lee Westwood, another golfer in need of a significant victory, lurks at nine-under and is joined by former Players champion Henrik Stenson. Defending champion Matt Kuchar and 2013 Masters winner Adam Scott are in the mix at seven-under, four behind Garcia.
Yet it’s certainly the Garcia/Woods pairing that everyone is eagerly awaiting and will be closely watching on Saturday.
Their divergent paths to this point have crossed at times over the years with Woods typically gaining the upper hand. Including the Hoylake mismatch, Tiger and Sergio have been paired together 19 times with Woods shooting the lower round 12 of those and Garcia getting the better of it only three times.
Both Garcia and Woods would tell you those previous matchups don’t much matter.
Both would also tell you that the fact Tiger has 77 career wins, including those 14 majors, and Garcia has but eight with no majors, is unimportant as well. To how they play in the third round, they would be exactly right. Yet to appreciate the matchup you have to go back to the expectations after 1999 that Woods has exceeded and Garcia has struggled with.
The rivalry promised through the brashness and creativity of Garcia and the determination and clutch of Woods faded away, but the beauty it would have brought has never been completely dismissed.
In 2013, Garcia has found his putting and his confidence is soaring. Woods is healthy, happy and on a mission to further grow and fortify his historic place in the game.
It’s the first time the two have met in their rightful form since Medinah, and it’s entirely possible the fireworks might just be the same at the Stadium Course as it was in Chicago so many years ago. Yet this time the battle would take place from the same pairing with each shot from one witnessed by the other.
There are those who consider The Players Championship a fifth major. While that designation is in reputation only, the final pairing of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia is worthy of any major, and we’re betting the drama that unfolds is as well.