Love him, hate him or doubt him, Sergio Garcia has become a fixture at the top of leaderboards and now sits in a tie for third place at the 2014 Open Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake.
Sergio has had three very strong rounds at Hoylake (68-70-69), and if not for the otherworldly play of Rory McIlroy, he would be in a great position to win his first major title.
Yes, we have heard this story before. At Carnoustie in 2007. At the PGA Championship in 1999 and 2008. At way too many tournaments to list in which he had his chance but his head, putter and game simply failed him.
Throughout his career, he has struck a vast range of attitude chords—petulant, emotional, impatient, uncontrolled and stubborn. It often looked like he was competing against himself more than the field.
Sergio has been in our golf consciousness for so long that it is hard to believe he is only 34 years old. He broke onto the scene in 1999 and quickly won his first title in his sixth start at the Irish Open.
Then he gained almost immediate fame when he competed against Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship and ended up in second.
Who will ever forget the excited young player who wrangled his ball around a tree on the 16th hole of the final round? His running, jumping scissor-kick as the ball headed for the green is etched into our minds.
We thought this combination of exuberance and skill signaled the rise of a new young star who would challenge Woods for major titles.
That success has not quite happened. Instead of winning majors, he is among a small group of golfers—including Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood—who hold the ignominious title of the best golfers who haven't won a major title.
Although he has 27 wins worldwide, he has not lived up to the promise of the young man who was supposed to be the next coming of Spanish golf icon Seve Ballesteros.
As you watch him play with confidence and patience at Royal Liverpool, it is hard to believe he was once so antsy in his stance, furiously gripping and regripping the club, that fans would yell, “Hit the ball, Sergio!”
He eventually changed his approach, quieted down and positioned himself for success. At the 2007 Open Championship, he had a three-shot lead over Steve Stricker going into the last round. Never known as a confident putter, he failed to convert a par putt on 18 that would have given him the win. He lost to Padraig Harrington in a playoff.
He then felt victimized by factors out of his control and even questioned his ability. About his attempts to win a major, he once said, "I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. The conclusion is I need to play for second or third place."
He went through an awful period in which he made a racially infused remark about his archrival Woods at the European Tour dinner. “We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken," Garcia said.
He went on to apologize to Woods, but Garcia’s reputation was tinged.
As we watch him play at Hoylake, we see a man who has not just come full circle but who has also faced his demons and overcome them.
Once limited by an unsteady putter, he now has a complete game that offers him a chance to win every time he tees it up.
Only a few years ago, he was ranked 144th in strokes gained-putting, but he finished in the eighth spot in that important category last year. He now ranks 28th and is moving up again. He is sixth in greens in regulation.
In his last 44 events, he has 22 top-10 finishes, including four victories.
He has a new woman by his side. Katharina Boehm, a German-born collegiate golfer from the College of Charleston, has seemingly tamed his life off the course.
When he steps up to a ball, he no longer jitters and juggles. He judges the distance and approach like a seasoned pro. When he gets on the green, it is not a case of how many putts it will take for him to finish but how few.
The petulance is gone, and in its place is a mature and even wise pro whose confidence is growing, not waning.
Even at seven strokes behind McIlroy going into Sunday, there is a feeling that Sergio, as much as anyone else in the field, can put up the numbers that could win The Open Championship should the leader begin to waver.
That is not something we ever would have thought about him in the past. Perhaps he has finally made the breakthrough that will gain him entry into the exclusive group of major titleholders.