He had me at kick. When in the final round of the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia made a miraculous escape shot off a tree trunk, then ran to the fairway and gave a balletlike leap culminating in a scissors kick as he peered to see where the ball landed, he created a legion of aficionados, myself among them. No matter that the Spaniard's gallant charge left him a shot back of eventual winner Tiger Woods. What I and many others saw was the long-awaited challenger who could go mano a mano with Tiger in the majors: a player with the game, the cojones and, perhaps as important, the magnetism that the Spanish call duende. Surely and shortly, his first major title would follow.
Since then, 30 majors have been played, and Tiger has won 10. Phil Mickelson has won three, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh two each. Heck, even David Duval won one. But El Nino? Nada. Garcia, now a grizzled 27, may or may not be the current Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. But let me suggest, to my chagrin, that now that Lefty has broken through and then some, Sergio is indisputably the most teasing, tantalizing and tormenting.
Of course, Garcia is hardly without accomplishment. He has six PGA Tour victories, another 10 worldwide and (aided greatly by that duende) gazillions in the bank. Moreover, in the biennial, pressurized Ryder Cup competition, El Nino is El Hombre. This has made his inability to break through in the majors all the more perplexing. The fellow who's nervelessly draining those improbable bombs at the K Club is the very same guy who can't drop one in the ocean at Augusta.
Garcia's recent performance in majors underscores this frustrating inconsistency. At last year's U.S. Open he missed the cut. At the British he was with Tiger in the final twosome; if ever there was a day to step up, this was it. Instead, Garcia shot a one-over 73 to the victorious Woods's five-under 67 and tied for fifth. At the PGA he fi nished in a more-than-respectable tie for third, but six strokes in arrears of champion Tiger. At this year's Masters and U.S. Open, he fell back, with two more desultory MCs. If we count the Players as a quasimajor, well, score one for Sergio: a sizzling 67Ã¢â‚¬"66 on the weekend vaulted him to a strong second. Thus the maddening reality: We're never sure which Sergio will show up.
A primo ball striker, Sergio's Achilles' heel is his play on and around the greens. His own frustration with his putt ing was betrayed in an ugly incident at Doral in March when he spit into the cup after he missed a short one on 13. A sequence in the first round of last month's Stanford St. Jude Championship was equally illustrative. On 17 (his eighth hole of the day), Sergio lipped out a tiddler, resulting in a double bogey. To say the least, his body language did not exude duende. However, 10 minutes later, Sergio did appear highly jaunty in one of his ubiquitous beer commercials.
In my disappointment, perhaps I am penalizing Sergio for having entered the scene so early. But one way in which the immortals tend to identify themselves is by bagging their first major by 30. Tiger got his at 21. Jack Nicklaus was 22, Gary Player 23, Tom Watson 25, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino 28.
So it is time, amigo. At Carnoustie you should be able to get to the green in grand style. Once you're there, pretend it's the Ryder Cup. I am waiting to see you hoist the claret jug. If that happens, I promise I will kick up my heels.