Sergio Garcia Fights His Demons: Can the Anti-Tiger Finally Win a Major?

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Sergio Garcia Fights His Demons: Can the Anti-Tiger Finally Win a Major?
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Sergio Garcia is desperate to win his first major. But has time already run out?

In the first week of April 2013, as both golfers were ramping up their preparations for the first major of the year, Adam Scott and Justin Rose found themselves in the Bahamas at the same time.

The pair—born two weeks apart in July 1980—played two practice rounds together, with the younger man, Rose, taking the money on both occasions.

The following Sunday, however, it was Scott who was celebrating victory when it really counted—holding his nerve in an enthralling finish against Angel Cabrera to become the first Australian ever to claim The Masters.

“We were both there [in the Caribbean] the week before the Masters, and we had a couple games,” Rose later said. “I took his money both times. I thought it's not fair that he went and won the tournament!”

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Scott's win lit a fire under the Englishman. After sending a congratulatory text to the Australian as the sun set on Augusta National, Rose received an appreciative reply that read, in part, “This is our time.”

And so it proved; Rose, perhaps emboldened by Scott’s example, went on to win the next major of the year, the US Open at Merion.

With Scott and Rose both 32 years of age, suddenly the press were drawing links between the players’ age and the timing of the biggest breakthrough of their careers (indeed, since 1960 the average age of all major champions is 32).

More than a decade after first making a name for themselves, suddenly passing 30 was being pointed to as a tipping point for first-time major winners.

“At 32, we have been around quite a while,” Rose acknowledged. “We had paid our dues in some senses.”

As the Englishman embarked on the seemingly never-ending list of media interviews and commitments that come with being golf’s latest major winner, only his major-less contemporaries can know what was going through their minds as they left Merion, Pennsylvania that Sunday evening.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Just six months older than the Englishman, for example, what was going through Sergio Garcia’s mind as the 59th major of his career passed by, again without a win—is my moment on the horizon, or has my chance of reaching the pinnacle already come and gone?

Professional sport, especially in the modern age, often demands bullet-proof confidence from those who hope to succeed. Most, were they to possess Garcia’s CV and talents, would doubtless have headed off that night more confident than ever that their turn to join Scott and Rose might be just around the corner.

Garcia, however, has rarely thought in such terms.

 

Written off already

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Sergio Garcia won in Qatar at the start of the year

At 34, the Spaniard arrives this week for the 16th Masters appearance of his career ranked comfortably inside the world’s top 10 (sixth, to be exact). He’s made the cut in all six of his PGA Tour appearances of the season, finishing in the top 10 four times—including third at last week's Shell Houston Open.

He has won on both the Asian and European Tours in the last six months—at the Thailand Golf Championship and Qatar Masters respectively—to take his list of career wins across the three main tours to 22.

Yet, despite those positive omens, he has been little discussed in the build-up to this week as a potential Augusta champion.

Seasoned golf observers already think they know what to expect.

"Sergio hasn’t done anything yet—and he probably won’t," Dan Jenkins, one of only three writers in golf's Hall of Fame, told Stephanie Wei in 2010. "Sergio seems more in line on giving it up."

Phil Mickelson, perhaps the last player to deal with a consensus reputation as being “the best player never to have won a major”, was 34 when he finally broke that glass ceiling.

Following last year’s virtuoso Open Championship triumph the American has five majors to his name (with six runner-up finishes at the US Open all that now separates him from the career grand slam), suggesting it is never too late for Garcia, or any mid-30s golfer, to not just win one major but to go on and reach the ranks reserved for all-time greats like Trevino, Nelson and Ballesteros.

After Mickelson’s first win at Augusta, Garcia was one of the players to inherit the unwelcome “best player never…” tag, going on to share it around with the likes of Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Dustin Johnson over the years.

But Mickelson, for four or five years, had to shoulder the moniker almost exclusively.

“When I was asked [about that tag] I think I was fairly consistent in my answer,” Mickelson told reporters after finally shedding it in 2004. “How I really believe that I've got plenty of time; that if I continue to work on things, the right things, that I'll continue to get better.”

He added: “The most difficult part of this ten-year journey has just been dealing with, I don't want to say failure, but dealing with losses time after time. It just gets frustrating. It can wear on you, except that you just can't let it.”

Garcia, in contrast, has seemed to struggle to remain impervious to the pressures of it all.

Chris O'Meara
Garcia lost his cool at Augusta in 2012

“I'm not good enough, I don't have the thing I need to have,” Garcia bemoaned to the Spanish press (subsequently reported by the Daily Mail) following a third round 75 at the 2012 Masters. “In 13 years I have come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place [in majors].

“Tell me something I can do? I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them.”

This has perhaps been Garcia’s problem above all. In terms of his golf game, few modern players have had his natural talent and innate feel for the game. Like Rory McIlroy, Garcia is a prodigious driver and precise iron player when his swing is in sequence, but he can be frustratingly erratic when it is not.

Both players rely heavily on touch and feel, elements many modern players can survive without due to the masking agent of modern club technology.

Unlikely McIlroy, however, or indeed most of the current generation of PGA Tour pros, Garcia has always struggled to keep emotion from invading and poisoning his swing at the most inopportune of moments.

 

The new kid on the block

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Once upon a time, that characteristic—often ascribed to the Latin temperament—was no bad thing. No teenage golfer in the modern era has come as close to winning a major championship as the 19-year-old Garcia did in 1999, as he nearly chased down Tiger Woods in an enthralling US PGA Championship.

It remains perhaps the defining memory many players have of Garcia; the Adidas-wearing youngster, two shots behind Woods and stuck behind a tree at the 16th, shutting his eyes, swinging the club with all his might, and then galloping after his ball as it miraculously hopped up onto the putting surface.

“I think he’s going to give it a whack here ladies and gentleman,” an incredulous Gary McCord said during the live broadcast that day, moments after he and his co-commentators had agreed pitching sideways was the only sensible move. “Little children, don’t watch this...

“...Oh my goodness he hit it on the green! That’s unbelievable!”

“I closed my eyes, and moved back just in case I hit the tree,” Garcia said later. “It was incredible.”

Woods, suddenly faced with a partisan crowd cheering for the fearless upstart, nevertheless held on to win by one—showing the relentless drive under pressure that, until recently at least, would become his trademark.

But Garcia had nevertheless announced himself onto the scene in brilliant fashion.

The youngster was immediately cast as Woods’ counterpoint, the other wunderkind from the other side of the Atlantic. Like the American, Garcia had been better than most adults at 12, and he had a golf-mad father (Victor Garcia, unlike Earl Woods, was a professional who had briefly had a stab at the European Tour) who prepared him for his "destiny" with unique tests—and mock press conferences—from an early age.

In some ways, though, Garcia had been even better than Nike’s golden boy. Woods was dominant as a junior, untouchable as an amateur and paradigm-shifting as a professional—but he had to wait until he formally entered all of those ranks before he enjoyed success within them.

Garcia was different, less patient; he made a cut on the European Tour at 14, and then won the Catalonia Open on the Spanish Tour as an amateur soon after.

Woods and Garcia first met in person at the 1996 Open Championship, the respective amateur champions from either side of the Atlantic invited to compete for the silver medal. The European missed the cut, the American finished in a tie for 22nd, but the pair got on well.

“I thought he was both very good and very nice,” Garcia told author and journalist Tom Callahan, in his book In Search of Tiger. “He smiled a lot, just like me.”

David Cannon/Getty Images
Tiger and Sergio were pals in 1999

That changed subtly after Medinah, especially after Garcia tried to ratchet up the pressure down the stretch and Woods, responding in kind with some guttural roars to his own made putts, received criticism from some quarters of the press.

“He brings it. You can see it just in the way he walks,” Woods acknowledged that day. “[But] Sergio wears his emotions on his sleeve, too. I wonder if people will start getting on him now.”

Woods was already learning that people will build you up often just to tear you down and so too it proved with Garcia. Much of it was of his own making, however; arguments in pro-ams, on-course tantrums, a litany of fired caddies and curious interactions with the press beginning to alienate those who had initially accepted him so enthusiastically.

MICHAEL CAULFIELD

Miguel Angel Jimenez, angered by Garcia’s decision not to join him in defending Spain’s World Cup title in 2000, noted: “The important thing in golf is what you have on top of your shoulders.”

(Spain won the three-man competition again anyway).

“As Sergio had seemed too good to be so young, now he seemed too young to be so good,” Callahan wrote. In many ways, that remains the case.

As for Woods’ changed opinion, that was easier to trace—Garcia’s over-exuberant celebration of his victory in a made-for-television exhibition match between the pair in 2000 ensuring that Woods’ infamous cold shoulder would now forever be turned in his direction.

 

Think before you speak

Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Tiger "bludgeoned Tweety Bird" at the 2006 Open

For someone seemingly so gifted at offending, Garcia has never really been able to deal very well with the resulting backlash. Woods’ ongoing enmity—after holding off Garcia, dressed in a canary yellow outfit, in the final round of the 2006 Open, Woods reportedly texted a friend “I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird”—genuinely seemed to baffle him for many years.

That culminated in a bizarre outburst in the third round at last year’s Players Championship, where he complained bitterly that Woods—on the other side of the fairway—had noisily taken a club from his bag just as Garcia was about to hit his shot.

The accusation was vehemently denied by his opponent, but it seemed to affect the accuser more than the accused. The next day, playing in the final group, Garcia put two balls in the water at the island 17th to effectively hand the title to a somewhat gleeful Woods.

It seemed to many observers a classic example of Garcia proving the master of his own downfall, becoming the man who suffered most from the situations he found himself in.

Weeks later it got worse. Unprompted, Garcia responded to a question about Woods at a European Tour awards dinner by saying: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

Uncredited
Garcia found himself scrambling to apologise to Woods

Suddenly the bubbling feud had become his public embarrassment. It was a spectacularly silly comment for which Garcia immediately apologised, but Woods was slow to respond in any conciliatory way (as was his right) and the issue dragged on.

Sponsors “re-evaluated” their ties to Garcia (eventually sticking with him), with Garcia eventually feeling the need to track down Woods at the US Open—via a locker-room note and subsequent driving range meeting—to apologise in person.

“We've already gone through it all,” Woods told the press at Merion, seeming to delight in some ways it Garcia’s ongoing discomfort. “We didn’t discuss it. It's time for the U.S. Open and we tee it up in two days.”

Garcia, who briefly considered not participating in the event, was heckled by some Philly fans during the tournament, an experience he admitted was “very tough”.

“It is my own fault,” he added. “I don't have anyone to blame other than myself.”

 

More demons in the rough

David Cannon/Getty Images
Harrington edged out Garcia in the US PGA in 2008

Woods denied Garcia his first opportunity to win a major, but he had no part in either of the Spaniard’s best openings. That “honour” instead went to Padraig Harrington, the Irishman who produced the best run of golf by any other player in the “Woods era”, winning three majors out of a possible six in a span between 2007 and 2008.

Like Woods, the dislike between Garcia and Harrington has long been an open secret on tour.

In 2007, Harrington played the spoiler at Carnoustie as he came from behind to beat Garcia in a play-off for the Claret Jug. Garcia started the final round with a three-shot advantage but eventually missed a 10-footer at the last to drop into a four-hole play-off, going two shots behind at the first hole and never recovering.

Just over 12 months later, at Oakland Hills in the US PGA, Harrington repeated the performance. This time in the same group on Sunday, again Garcia burst into a final round lead before finding water at the 16th.

Harrington’s putter then went to work; the Irishman holing from sizeable distances at each of the last three holes as Garcia suddenly saw his chances extinguished without him having much of a say in the matter.

To many, the grinder had beaten the natural talent, and the latter struggled to come to terms with it. In 2008, Harrington told reporters:

Ian Walton/Getty Images

He is the antithesis of me, and I am the antithesis of him.

We play the game in exactly the opposite way. He is destined to find the long game easy and the short game hard, and I am the opposite.

I think in the hearts and minds of a lot of people Garcia would have been No. 1, while I have been ranked No. 1 As you can imagine, no quarter is given.

I have had plenty of run-ins with people and we would be friends but [with Garcia] it is just, well, we are so much the opposite of each other.

 

Any distraction will do

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Garcia endured painful Ryder Cup experiences in 2008 and 2010

The ongoing dislike for Woods and Harrington makes a certain kind of sense in a petulant you-denied-me-my-biggest-dream sort of way, but in light of Garcia’s other career failings they look like a straw man trying to deflect attention—mainly the Spaniard’s own—away from a more probing analysis of his failings.

No defeat has done more to hurt Garcia’s career, for example, than the Ryder Cup singles loss he suffered to Anthony Kim in 2008.

Garcia was sent out first by the European team—an honour for any player but particularly one who idolised Seve Ballesteros and similarly invested such emotion in the competition.

The dream quickly turned into a nightmare, however, as an out-of-sorts and visibly embarrassed Garcia was demolished 5&4 by the rampant 23-year-old.

“Today it was a hard day because I got…I played against a guy that played awesome,” Garcia told a TV reporter right after. "I feel like I had a good chance, but I just couldn't get anything right.”

Rob Carr

Garcia certainly seemed to dwell on the match long after it had finished (the United States romped to victory anyway), and it marked the beginning of the worst slump of his career.

Two years later the Spaniard did not even make Europe’s Ryder Cup team as a wildcard (instead, he got the consolation prize of an assistant captain’s role), while his world ranking had tumbled so far that he was forced into local qualifying for the US Open—and only made the Open Championship field with a second-place finish at the previous week’s BMW Championship (Garcia, impressively, went on to finish in the top 10 at both majors).

Garcia’s demise may have been further influenced by off-course matters, however. Initially known on tour as something of a ladies’ man (he briefly dated Jessica Alba, while Swedish pro Jesper Parnevik had wryly noted in 2007 that Garcia “chased my nannies around a few times”), his split from long-term girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman, daughter of two-time major champion Greg, in early 2009 has long been cited as a difficult period for Garcia.

The split seemed to underline the feeling that Garcia could not perform when other aspects of his life were out of sync, a perceived weakness that the man himself was remarkably willing to admit to.

"When I am not feeling happy on a golf course and not up for it, that is the way it is. You can't do anything about it. I can't do well,” Garcia told The Times (via Sports Illustrated) at that year's Open.

"Obviously the break-up with Morgan didn't help. You get over some things. Others take a little longer.”

Phil Inglis/Getty Images
Garcia and Morgan Leigh Norman in 2008

By 2011, however, Garcia had indeed finally moved on, and he would talk about being far happier in his personal life as new girlfriends were pictured with him at different tournaments and events.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

When all is happy at home, Garcia seems to thrive. When it is not, his golf game suffers.

There is something quintessentially Sergio about the fact that he cantered to his only victory of 2013, the Thailand Golf Championship in December, with his current girlfriend, Katherine Boehm, carrying his clubs.

"I think it turned out pretty good, but I think we'll leave it [there]," Garcia said of Boehm's stint as caddie. “It was something she wanted to do since we started dating, and I thought that would be a good week. I wanted to keep going, but she fired me!"

 

Signs of maturity

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Now on a more even keel emotionally, it is perhaps addressing the lingering issues in his game that may define whether he ever breaks his major duck.

First up is putting—the glaring issue in Garcia’s game that Harrington, for one, seemed to delight in.

The player who once hustled members for Cokes in putting competitions at his home course as a kid, used to be one of the finest putters around—until (inevitable) lapses on tour began to slowly but surely erode his faith in that skill and consequently the skill itself.

It is a story many weekend golfers can sympathise with, not one that tends to afflict top professionals.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Over time, that mistrust extended further and further from the cup, as Garcia began to grip and re-grip his club countless times on tees and fairways wherever he played. He initially insisted it was not a problem—”If it takes 100 re-grips, then I’m going to take 100 re-grips,” he told Callahan—but it seemed a visible manifestation of a psychological puncturing of the confidence in his abilities he always had.

Matters reached a head in 2001, at the Nedbank Challenge. Standing over a two-iron to a par-five green protected by water, Garcia re-gripped his club an estimated 60 times before throwing it down in anguish, screaming “Just hit the f-----g ball!”

Distraught, he came back with a wedge and laid up. That night his father, Victor, strapped his hands to the club with tape and made him hit balls until the urge to fidget dissipated. Garcia went on to win the event.

Garcia is nowhere near as fragile now, but he would still seem to benefit from someone helping him to keep things simple whenever his mind wants to complicate matters.

 

The weight of expectation

David Cannon/Getty Images
Garcia with Ballesteros at the 1995 Ryder Cup

In some ways, perhaps Garcia’s nationality has hindered him, too. Being Spanish he has therefore had to live up to comparisons with the great Ballesteros, even though his natural game, to all intents and purposes, is very different.

Garcia has never been the scrambler and creative genius around the greens that Seve was, while he never quite had the impenetrable psyche and dead-eyed accuracy that made another Spanish major winner, Jose Maria Olazabal, his compatriot’s perfect partner in Ryder Cups.

Garcia was and is his own player, a different player yet, partly through idolatry and partly by media pressure, he occasionally has seemed compelled to try and live up to those first, lazy analogies.

“I’m proud to be compared to those greats,” Garcia told Callahan in 2001. “I’m a little better driver than either of them.

"With the irons, though, I don’t know how anyone could be as good as Olazabal. And Seve has that heart.”

Ballesteros, interestingly enough, won the last of his five majors when he was just 31.

English golfers, in contrast, have the example of Sir Nick Faldo to look up to. Faldo was a plodder rather than a swashbuckler, someone who rebuilt his swing from the ground up so it would withstand the pressures of championship golf.

He was dismissive of the press and they loathed him in return, his six majors a reward for patience and mental fortitude (many of his opponents simply floundered down the stretch) as much as his talent for the game.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Rose would become the next Englishman to win a major at the US Open; the tournament where limiting mistakes and retaining a clarity of thinking are more valuable qualities than elsewhere.

 

Never too late to change the tune

Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Sergio Garcia has found Augusta tough going in recent times

The question, then, is whether Garcia can channel those trials and tribulations towards finally securing the one thing he has always wanted; a major title.

The problem, however, is that many suspect the accumulated scar tissue of top-level golf, both self-inflicted and thrust upon, will mean that, unlike that shot at Medinah 15 years ago, he will shy away from the challenge when it comes to crunch time.

That first defeat to Harrington in 2007? On the first hole of the play-off, Garcia's pinpoint approach shot looked perfect in the air, looking like it was going to land no further than ten feet from the hole. But on its way down it clipped the pin, remarkably running off the green and into the bunker behind the putting surface.

Garcia would make bogey, and he proved unable to shake off the misfortune in his post-tournament press conference:

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

It's funny how some guys hit the pin or hit the pin and go to a foot. Mine hits the pin and goes 20 feet away. 

You know what's the saddest thing about it? It's not the first time. It's not the first time, unfortunately. So, I don't know, I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field.

I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot one-over. I guess it's not news in my life. I just have to move on and hopefully do better next time. 

Boyish wonder has been replaced by the cynicism of adulthood.

In 1999, as he and his father walked off Augusta National after their first round at the fabled venue, the teenager was in awe of everything around him.

“It’s the home of all your dreams,” he noted. “You’re hitting to the clouds. You never seem to come down.”

Yet 13 years later the home of his dreams had become a padded room for his nightmares, as he stood off the side of that same 18th green, imploring reporters from his own country for answers he no longer believed he could find himself.

If his recent return to Twitter, after a near-three-year absence, is anything to go by, then Garcia is certainly in a better frame of mind many months on.

His major performances in recent years have indicated he remains there or thereabouts, although it is a sizeable leap from encouraging performances from early weekend tee-times to actually contending on a Sunday afternoon.

Augusta might not be Garcia’s likeliest winning venue—Augusta, above all other major venues, demands the sort of putting Garcia has never had in his locker—but he remains talented enough to contend at any of the four majors.

The question, increasingly eternal, is whether—if he gets himself in that position—he can stay out of his own way long enough to actually take advantage.

Maturity should help in that regard. Recollections of the past might not.

Garcia might envy his friend McIlroy, and with good reason—the Northern Irishman never had to contend with Woods at his fearsome, psyche-damaging peak, and he also got the major monkey off his back virtually at the start of his career.

But that was not simply luck; After all, McIlroy infamously blew a three-shot lead at the Masters in 2010, before bouncing straight back to win the very next major, the US Open at Congressional, by eight shots.

Would Garcia have been able to show similar mental fortitude in such circumstances?

 

Finding the path of roses

Patric Schneider
Garcia finished third at last week's Shell Houston Open

As Justin Rose kissed the US Open trophy in the Merion twilight that Sunday last June, Garcia traipsed away from the course having finished in a tie for 45th, 14 shots off the pace.

Garcia had seemingly never been in the tournament. Yet a closer inspection of his scorecards revealed he had dropped a remarkable 16 shots on the same two holes at Merion, repeated disasters of double-bogeys, eights and even a 10 that weighed down his challenge like an anchor.

The 14th and 15th were both difficult driving holes, with out of bounds creeping into players' vision (at the latter, it was just one pace off the fairway). Mental resolve was required for competitors to step up and commit to their swing; time and again Garcia failed that test.

“It's the way it is,” Garcia reflected, when probed about his continued failures. “It's one of those things. I tried to battle as much as I could.

“I guess I was just making my week a little bit tougher.”

His career, too. Perhaps Garcia should keep in mind what he told Sports Illustrated seven years ago:

It's not a camino de rosas [path of roses], being a professional.

There are times you hit a mala rachilla, a bad stretch, when things don't work out. But if you keep your enthusiasm and desire, you will win in the end.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Chris Carlson

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