Bad luck and fate be damned — Sergio Garcia's best may still be ahead
There's nothing in sports like a brilliant young talent, and Sergio Garcia was brilliant and young. The indelible image of Young Sergio comes from the PGA Championship in 1999, when he was 19. He hit a shot from the base of a tree, then ran after it like a child chasing a butterfly, jumping in the air, his legs split, so he could see where the ball finished. The moment jumped out of time. Sergio laughed happily. They called him "El Niño"—the child. His future seemed limitless.
We only get a few stories of youthful genius in sports, and we go crazy over them. Remember when former New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden was 19 years old, striking out everybody with high fastballs and curveballs that buckled the knees? He wasn't just a wonderful pitcher. He was wonderful and young. He had a chance to change the game.
Gooden did not change the game. He peaked at 20, and then spent adulthood fighting demons—cocaine, alcohol, injuries, the trappings of fame—often losing to them. Garcia has fought his own demons. That carefree 19-year-old aged into a mid-20s golfer who kept gripping and regripping his club, a late-20s golfer whose putts couldn't find the hole, and now an early-30s golfer who has won again and talks about rediscovering his enthusiasm.
Youthful genius is usually a lie. Heisman Trophy winners often fail in the NFL. Under-17 soccer superstars rarely thrive on the World Cup stage. Brilliant baseball prospects flame out so often that it has become cliché. I think that's because youth doesn't know disappointment, and disappointment wrecks people.
Garcia had a putt to win the 2007 British Open—"Every time I see that putt in my mind I see it going in," he said recently—but he missed it. He was in position to win the 2008 PGA Championship but again came up short down the stretch. He still believes that luck wasn't with him on those final holes.
Each of these losses—and others like them—wore down Garcia's youthful exuberance. He lost heart-breaking tournaments, then he lost his desire, and finally he lost his game. In the later years, even when he played well, he seemed joyless and often talked about his bad luck and how fate had conspired against him. No one likes being around someone who feels sorry for himself.
It takes extraordinary will to overcome bad breaks, to stay steady over putts when you've missed so many, to come back from searing defeat. I think this is why so few phenoms endure. "All children are artists," Pablo Picasso once said. "The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."
Here's the fascinating part: Garcia turns just 32 years old this month. He's got scars now (lots of them), but he's young enough to climb back to the top of the game again, as he proved with back-to-back wins in Europe in October. His ball-striking is still among the world's best. His new putting style looks forced and uneasy, but the ball seems to be finding the hole more often. And remember: Phil Mickelson didn't win his first major championship until he was 33. Vijay Singh won his at age 35. There are still great years ahead.
Garcia probably won't change the sport of golf now, or live up to the dreams he inspired as a 19-year-old. We all understand that. But if he can let go of all that—and, Lord knows, it's hard to let go—he can still do remarkable things. One of the few things we love as much as a tale of youthful genius is a comeback story.
To read more of Joe, visit his blog at joeposnanski.SI.com