You would have thought Sergio Garcia was the next Elvis the way crowds responded to him at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. The smile, the daring, the vigor, and only 19 — men exchanged high-fives, women swooned, and kids, well, kids adored him most of all. "It looks like they love me," a grinning Garcia said after narrowly missing birdie putts on 17 and 18 and finishing second to Tiger Woods.
Fans had been waiting for Garcia to win a major since he was 16, when Tom Lehman handed him the Claret Jug at the 1996 British Open and said, "You're going to hold this someday." Only Woods was so celebrated so young as Garcia, who played in 28 professional events as an amateur, and whose boyhood home in Castellon, Spain, was strewn with so many gleaming trophies that Jerry Higginbotham, one of Garcia's early caddies, wondered upon visiting: Where do I sit?
Alas, like any love affair, the ensuing years have tested both sides. Garcia cooled off immediately after Medinah, going winless in 2000, which created such alarm that Robert Erb, a vice president at TaylorMade-Adidas, was moved to defend the company's young star. "I'm used to seeing athletes have up years and down years," Erb said. "Sergio will come through fine."
The public, however, couldn't help but turn its wandering eye to Woods, who did nothing but win while Garcia displayed the petulance of a jilted ex, once kicking the ground in anger at a match-play event only to lose his shoe, which narrowly missed an official's head. He found it easiest to blame anyone or anything other than himself.
The excuses started when he was asked about his failure to birdie Medinah's 17th and replied, "No, I hit a good putt, but the problem is the ball — I think it bounced." When Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Garcia indelicately suggested Woods received preferential tee times.
No one likes a sore loser, but Garcia's popularity bottomed out on Long Island because of something else: the interminable twitching and regripping in his pre-shot routine. New Yorkers gave him hell for it, and Garcia responded with defiant scowls and his middle finger. In three short years he had descended from toast of the Tour to Public Enemy No. 1.
Garcia, now 27, denies that his popularity has waned. "I wouldn't say that [the fans have given up on me]," he said at the Nissan Open in February. "But the American crowd is always going to cheer harder for an American as opposed to a European, and in Europe it's the other way. But it's just a way of life, the way it should be." Still, there is no denying he has not lived up to his fans' expectations. He has come nowhere near his stated goal upon turning pro to be the No. 1 player in the world, or of winning the money titles on the European and PGA tours in the same year, as he boldly discussed in 2002. He has eliminated the endless waggles, but just once every two years, at the Ryder Cup (where his career record is 14-4-2), does he outshine his American nemesis, Woods.
Which begs the question: Can Garcia thrive without fan support?
"What you're describing is called 'social facilitation' or 'audience effect,'" says John F. Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla., sports psychologist who works with tennis players. "It was the subject of the first study ever done in the field, by [Norman] Triplett, who looked at audience effect on cycling speed, and it's been replicated many times."
Audience effect explains home-field advantage and why Vince Spadea, a mid-level pro and Murray client, regularly makes the semifinals of the ATP event in his hometown of Delray Beach, Fla., despite only occasionally excelling in other tournaments. "Vince has got a little flair to him,"Murray says. "He loves to hear his name shouted out."
Garcia, too, is joined at his very soul to the crowd. He cried when Team Europe was peppered with insults in Boston and lost the '99 Ryder Cup, fed off a vocal (and supportive) New York gallery when he won the 2001 Buick Classic in Westchester County, and let another gang of garrulous Gothamites drive him batty at Bethpage. Like Springsteen in spikes, the more love Garcia does or doesn't feel, the more it shows in his performance. "When he gets the crowd going and on his side," says 1999 Cup teammate Jesper Parnevik, "he is unstoppable."
Whether or not a U.S. gallery will ever get behind Garcia again like it did at the '99 PGA Championship is an open question, especially after all that's gone down since that magical day. The petulance has not helped (nor have the missed opportunities), and then there was his fiery proclamation after Europe thrashed the U.S. at the K Club last year: " There's nothing sweeter than beating the Americans."
"If he keeps whipping our behind in the Ryder Cup," says Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. captain, "the American crowd will never pull for him."
After a winless 2006, it's unclear whether Garcia is getting closer to or further from his goals. He insists he's getting closer — "If I wasn't then I'd be in trouble," he says — but is he really?
"I had some disappointments in majors," says Tom Lehman, who turned pro in 1982, 14 years before winning his first major, the British Open. "But I knew I was moving closer, that it was only a matter of time, that one of these days was going to be my day. Did I say that to the media? No. But I told my wife. Does Sergio feel like he's running up against a wall that's too high to climb? In his quietest moments only he knows."
At the British Open at Hoylake last summer, Garcia shot a third-round 65 to earn a final-round pairing with the supremely confident Woods. Though never questioning his talent, pundits wondered how Garcia would hold up stripped of the armor that playing for team and country imbues in him.
Sure enough, just one stroke behind to begin the day, Garcia did his fragile-flower act for the first 45 minutes of play. He missed two short par putts in the first three holes and shot 39 on the front nine (10 shots higher than the previous day). In psychologist Murray's world it was a case of "habit strength," because the whole thing was eerily reminiscent of Bethpage, when, paired with Woods for the final round, Garcia obligingly went out in 40.
When he was comfortably out of contention at Hoylake, Garcia started making putts, shot 34 on the back nine and turned in a 73. It wasn't the crowd's fault. If anything, Garcia is more popular in Britain than America. But it wasn't Garcia's, either. "I can't even count how many good putts I hit that didn't go in," he said. Still, by rolling over for Woods yet again, Garcia had solidified the public's sentiment that he just didn't have it in him to hang with the world's No. 1.
"Sometimes in the majors he's trying too hard, because everyone's expecting him to win one," says Parnevik, who along with his wife Mia are like surrogate parents to Garcia. "As soon as he wins that first one I think he's going to win many, kind of like Phil did. Twenty-seven is not old in golf. Tiger — it could be once in history to come out and do what he's done before 30."
No one looks good next to Woods, but Garcia's short game invites scrutiny. He was 158th on Tour in putting last year, and while statistics can be deceiving, he has missed many of the most significant putts of his career, from Medinah, twice (he tied for third at the '06 PGA but never seriously threatened Woods), to Bethpage to Hoylake.
"I don't think he's a bad putter," says Higginbotham, who caddied for Garcia at the '99 PGA. "Sergio makes his birdie on 18, we go into a playoff and maybe he wins. He's very, very streaky."
Team Sergio is reluctant to provide much information on Garcia's training methods, but one instructor who spoke on the condition of anonymity says he worked to modify the Spaniard's putting stroke last offseason. Garcia moved away from the ball, with his eyes no longer directly above it but slightly inside the line, and changed the rhythm of his stroke, becoming less slow and methodical since those adjectives don't describe the rest of his game. He also switched back to a crosshanded grip this year.
"It feels like my stroke is more consistent that way," Garcia says. "I think I'm going to stay cross-handed for quite a while."
"I've seen him go left-hand low and all this other stuff," Higginbotham continues. "His posture is beautiful. He's got the lightest grip pressure I've ever seen. It's a confidence thing with him."
Garcia thrives when he can play aggressively, as at the Ryder Cup, where the format's strategic differences free him up to fire at will without much to pay in possible consequences. For one thing, he's got two extra sets of eyes to help him read greens, and there are other reasons to be bold. If he misses, his teammate can bail him out. If he misses twice, he can pick up, barring a concurrent collapse by his opponent. There are no four-putts in match play, which is how one of the Tour's shakiest putters magically transforms into Ben Crenshaw.
EUROPE'S ace is more effective on approach shots in the Ryder Cup too. Firing at flags with impunity during the K Club victory last fall, he looked like anything but the guy who's been drifting away from pins on Tour, with his average approach shot ending up a pedestrian 30'4" from the hole in 2005, and 35'8" in 2006.
Says Lehman, "If he can understand what allows him to perform and putt so well in a Ryder Cup ... whatever the reason, he's able to be 100 percent completely focused and 100 percent relaxed. That combination of focus and calm is what gives great players their greatness."
It's a combination that can be cracked, says psychologist Murray. He remembers one South American tennis player who was unbeatable when he played for his country but far from it the rest of the time. The cure: visualization.
"What I did with the guy was use imagery that he was in the Davis Cup when he was actually playing in Delray Beach," Murray explains. "He almost beat Agassi."
Off the course, Garcia hasn't changed. He is very close to his family — dad Victor still travels the circuit with him — and he's as popular as ever with the ladies. Last year he began dating 24-year old Morgan Leigh-Norman, daughter of Greg. Garcia is such a reliably chipper locker-room presence that even rah-rah Americans like Jerry Kelly and Lehman call him a friend. Maybe Azinger will come around later.
Mark Bowden, an ABC cameraman who got to know Garcia through the Tour, was on the road when he got a call from his wife back home in Boise, Idaho, a few years ago. There was a beer truck in front of their house, and she was certain the driver was lost. Turned out he was delivering 10 cases of Michelob Ultra, courtesy of Garcia, to mark the birth of the Bowdens' son.
Indeed, it's a stretch to cast the Castellon kid as an enemy. The problem is that his popularity or lack there of is of such great consequence to him.
"He's got to create that [crowd] love in his own mind," says Justin Rose of England, who is Garcia's neighbor at Florida's gated Lake Nona Golf Club. "At the end of the day you've got to accept that you're not only competing against Tiger but all the people who root for him as well. You've got to be in your own little bubble out there and create whatever feeling you need to create."
Garcia laughs at the Springsteen analogy, and while he admits that he thrives on the crowd, he adds a caveat. "At the end of the day," he says, "I'm there for myself."
Truth be told, he has been in that bubble, and played oblivious to the crowd. It was the final round of the 2004 Masters, and Garcia, fed up with being written off by the press, started to resemble Woods. He channeled his anger, using it to make putt after putt, birdie after birdie. Playing partner Jerry Kelly couldn't figure out what he'd done. Had he coughed in the guy's backswing? Walked in his line? Garcia signed for a 66, then stormed to the media pavilion. "It's nice to see how fair you guys are," he fumed.
Kelly didn't have a chance to talk to Garcia for several weeks afterward. Finally the two spoke, and Garcia said his anger wasn't personal. "He was getting bashed up in the media," Kelly says. "And he was pretty unhappy that he wasn't having the major that he thought he should be having, again. I think that really clicked him out of whatever funk he was in, not that it was much of a funk." Garcia tied for fourth, but he had clearly harnessed that me-against-the-world vibe that so motivates Woods.
"That was weird; that was a different situation," Garcia says. "I'm not going to talk about that. It's way in the past." It was El Nino out of his element. As psychologist Murray says, "A lot of people need encouragement. They need rah-rah."
The rah-rah will return only when Garcia can prove that he's capable of playing like the cold, impenetrable closer American fans ditched him for. If he can grit his teeth and enter that bubble for four important days, the public will want him more than ever when he emerges. After his transcendent day at the 2004 Masters, all that remains is to rediscover that bubble and settle in like he owns the place. The hell with the rah-rah.