Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 23, 2011

New Grip And Familiar Ground Give Sergio A Huge Win

At age 31, Sergio Garcia has outgrown his nickname. It’s been a dozen years since a 19-year old “El Nino” sprinted down Medinah’s 16th fairway and then scissor-kicked into the air so he could see his iron shot roll onto the green. In the midst of a final round duel with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, the mere fact that his tee shot had wound up resting against a tree trunk hadn’t stopped the irrepressible Garcia from attempting a seemingly impossible recovery. The fact that he pulled off the “how did he do that?” shot, coupled with his obvious enthusiasm for the game, outweighed his eventual second-place finish to Woods and made the young Spaniard an instant star.

As pundits are wont to do, many forecast absurdly great things for Garcia. He was touted as potentially the next Woods; or at the very least a certain rival for years to come to the era’s greatest golfer. If such hype was overblown, it doesn’t mean that Garcia hasn’t had success. In the decade after the scissor-kick he won seven PGA Tour events and eight times on the European Tour. In addition to the wins he came achingly close with regularity, losing in playoffs on eight separate occasions in either the U.S. or Europe.

The bitterest defeat was surely at the 2007 Open Championship. Leading after each of the first three rounds played over the wet links of Carnoustie, Garcia needed only a par at the final hole on Sunday to claim his first major title. But after a long wait in the fairway watching a caddie from the next-to-last group meticulously rake a greenside bunker, Garcia put his approach into that very trap. When his ten foot putt to save par lipped out, he was forced into a playoff with Padraig Harrington. Four holes later, it was the Irishman rather than the Spaniard who claimed his maiden win in one of the four majors.

Rather than being devastated by the loss at the Open, Garcia seemed more focused than ever. The following spring he won the Players Championship, and later in 2008 he won twice on the European Tour. He was runner-up at the 2008 PGA Championship where he was thwarted by Harrington yet again. He also finished second in two of the four PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff events. All of that was good enough to take him all the way to number two in the Official World Golf Rankings by the end of 2008.

Then, just when it seemed like he might be about to live up to the decade-old hype, it all stopped. From his win at the HSBC Champions European Tour event the first week in November, 2008 until this weekend, Garcia went nearly three years without a victory. Along the way, there were still plenty of “how did he do that?’ shots. But increasingly, for every one of those there were two or three or several “why did he miss that?” putts. The flat stick became the bane of Garcia’s game; the fateful miss at the 72nd hole of the 2007 Open both a reminder that putting had always been his weak link and a precursor of travails to come. For awhile it seemed like every time he appeared in a tournament Garcia was trying something different on the greens. From a conventional grip to left-hand low, from a standard shaft to a belly putter, from a blade to a mallet head, then mixing and matching all of the above. It got to the point where one almost expected him to sacrifice one of his other thirteen clubs in order to carry multiple putters. What the variety of equipment and approaches made plain was that he had completely lost confidence in his ability to roll the ball into the hole. Meanwhile he plummeted down the rankings and failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup team for the first time in his career.

After the 2010 PGA Championship Garcia stepped away from the game, taking his longest break from competitive golf since he had turned pro. When he returned late in the year it was with a standard length TaylorMade blade and the “claw” grip first popularized several years ago by Chris DiMarco. This time, Garcia stuck with both the equipment and the grip. Gradually, as the calendar turned to 2011, he began to see better results. Early this year he led at the halfway point of both the Transitions and the Byron Nelson before fading on the weekend. He finished 7th at the U.S. Open and 9th at the Open Championship. In June he lost a sudden death playoff at the European Tour’s BMW International Open.

Then this week Sergio went home. The Castello Masters is played on Garcia’s home course, Club de Campo del Mediterraneo in Valencia. It’s the course where a 12-year old Garcia was club champion, and where the professional Garcia won the inaugural staging of the European Tour event in 2008. This time, in front of friends, family, and adoring fans, Garcia didn’t merely win the tournament; he lapped the field. With rounds of 67-63-64-63 he finished an astonishing 27-under par, 11 shots clear of his closest pursuer. It was the third largest margin of victory and second lowest total in relation to par in European Tour history. It was a win built on brilliant shot-making, of course. But this time the flat stick helped out as well. Garcia led the field in putts per greens in regulation at 1.57, and was second in total putts per round, averaging just 27.8.

Winning on a course that he could probably play blindfolded doesn’t by itself resurrect Garcia’s career. But routing the competition put a very wide grin back on his face. Because he started so young it’s easy to forget that Garcia is just 31, with many years of competitive golf left to play. With his growing confidence in the “claw” the victories should start to come again; maybe even the long-awaited one in a major championship.

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Responses

  1. You raise an interesting issue about Sergio doing so well on his home course: did he do well because he played on a course he knew so well or did he play well because he was confident-either in knowing the course or in knowing his putter or putting?

    Sergio has long been one of my favorite players on tour. I have agonized with him over those four and five foot putts that he seems more often to miss than to make.

    If he can ever learn to putt with confidence I suspect each course may play more like his home course.


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