Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2011

For Sergio, Just One More Bad Day At The Office

Sergio Garcia, the 31-year old Spaniard once touted as the European equivalent of Tiger Woods, opened the FedEx St. Jude Classic in steamy Memphis today with a round of 8 over par 78. Of the 18 entries on his scorecard, remarkably 14 were pars, and two others were an offsetting birdie and bogey on the 16th and 17th holes. But on the par-4 14th hole he hit his approach into the water fronting the green and made double bogey. Then on the par-5 3rd hole (Garcia’s twelfth of the round since he started on the back), he hammered a tee shot 336 yards, the ball coming to rest in the rough right of the fairway. With 216 yards remaining to the hole, Garcia did what almost any member of the PGA Tour would do; he opted to go for the green in two and create a chance for an eagle.

The 3rd hole at TPC Southwind has water running down the right hand side and fronting the green, especially from Garcia’s angle in to the hole. His first attempt found the lake. After taking a penalty stroke and moving up to the point where his shot had crossed the boundary of the hazard, Garcia had only about 125 yards to safety. But his next shot found the lake as well; as did the next, after yet another penalty stroke. Finally, after three penalty strokes on a single hole, Garcia hit long, his ball flying over the green and landing in a back bunker. From there he blasted out and two-putted for a quintuple-bogey 11. The opening 78 leaves Garcia in 150th place out of 154 golfers who turned in cards for round one.

Once a 15-year old Garcia set what was then a European Tour record as the youngest player to make a 36-hole cut. Four years later, after finishing as low amateur at The Masters, Garcia turned pro. That summer of 1999 now seems an age or more ago. That was the year that Garcia backed up his Masters performance by recording his first professional victory in just his sixth start as a pro at the Irish Open. He would win again that fall, beating Padraig Harrington and Ian Woosnam in a playoff at the German Masters.

In between those two victories, at Medinah that August, Garcia burned himself into the consciousness of American golf fans at the PGA Championship. He opened with a 6-under par 66 to lead the first round. By Sunday he was minus-9, tied for third with Stewart Cink, two shots behind Tiger Woods and Mike Weir. In the closing round of just his second major as a professional, Garcia battled Woods throughout that Sunday. The young Spaniard hung tough when Woods started strong by playing the first 11 holes in 4-under par. When Woods dropped shots at the 11th and 12th and Garcia birdied the 13th, he was within a stroke of the lead.

In the end of course the tournament belonged to Woods, his second of what are now fourteen majors. But before Tiger was able to hoist the Wannamaker Trophy the world got to see Garcia’s remarkable shot from a seemingly impossible lie behind a tree. The seeing-eye 6-iron somehow hooked around the tree, and rifled down the fairway onto the 16th green. Racing out of the shadows of the forest and back onto the fairway to follow the ball, Garcia performed a perfect running scissor-kick when he saw the ball on the putting surface.

At that moment everything seemed possible for Garcia and for a long-running international Woods-Garcia rivalry as well. That all now seems but a dimming memory fading into the distance. To be sure, Garcia is no journeyman. He has eight victories on the European Tour and another seven on the PGA Tour. In 2008, he won twice in Europe and beat Paul Goydos in a playoff at TPC Sawgrass to win the prestigious Players’ Championship. Late that year he climbed all the way to second in the World Golf Rankings.

But those 2008 victories still stand as Garcia’s most recent, and by this week he had fallen to 75th in the rankings. Along the way he has tinkered with his swing and gone back and forth between belly and regular length putters seemingly as often as he changes shirts. The state of his game was most apparent two weeks ago at the Byron Nelson Championship. On the brutally difficult TPC Las Colinas course outside of Dallas, Garcia opened with a pair of 66’s to lead the tournament at the halfway point. But his impressive 8-under performance through two days dissolved into a 3-over par finish when he shot 74-77 on the weekend.

Of course, since that initial major championship duel with Woods in 1999, Tiger has added twelve more victories for a total of fourteen majors. Garcia meanwhile is still looking for his first. In 47 majors as a professional he has 15 top-ten finishes. But he has nearly matched that tally with 13 missed cuts and 1 disqualification.

Along the way Sergio has too often displayed petulance with the press and public. He also has an exceedingly well refined ability to blame everyone and everything but himself for his performance. Professional athletes need a certain amount of hubris, less self-doubt worm its unhappy way into their psyche. But hubris is one thing; total denial is decidedly another.

It may be Garcia has strayed too far from what was once natural. For years his only teacher was his father Victor. But even while he was winning in his teens and early twenties, there were plenty of expert talking heads who warned that his looping, lagging swing and numerous pre-shot waggles of the club wouldn’t stand up over time. We’ll never know, because that swing and those waggles are both now long gone. Certainly his well-known problems on the greens have contributed mightily to a career in danger of being in free fall.

Last week’s winner Steve Stricker is living proof that golf is a game in which there is ample opportunity for a second act. For all of his struggles and despite his frequent pouts, for some reason I’ve always liked Sergio. Maybe it was the perfectly executed scissor-kick. So I’ll continue to hope that somewhere in the future there are once again victories and brighter days for the golfer known as “El Nino.” In the meantime, it’s now a sure bet that Tiger Woods won’t win his 15th major at next week’s U.S. Open, since he has withdrawn. It’s almost an equally sure bet that Garcia, who survived a playoff at a sectional qualifier last Monday to get into the Open, won’t win either. One can only hope that in the glare of the game’s brightest spotlight, El Nino doesn’t wind up, as he did today, looking more like Tin Cup.

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