PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — As Sergio Garcia prepared to start the final round of the Players Championship at 9:45 a.m. Sunday, dressed head-to-toe in black, his fan club stood at the ready, as they have every day this week.
Seven middle-school-aged boys, whose tie-dyed shirts had a letter or an exclamation point front and back — their hero's first name on the front, his last on the back. They stood out of order, though, so that they spelled E-R-I-O-G-S. The jumbled mess was an apt metaphor for the state of Garcia's game.
Although Garcia's image is everywhere from billboards to tickets (fist-pumping last year after his 72nd-hole par forced a playoff with Paul Goydos), the 2008 Players champion came into the '09 Players 122nd on the money list and short of both confidence and temper.
"I obviously am not feeling 100 percent with my game at the moment and it shows," he said. "I'm just not having a great time on the course. I'm working on trying to change that."
And what exactly had gotten Garcia so grumpy? Was he no longer dating Morgan-Leigh Norman, daughter of Greg? Word in the press tent was that they were finished. Was Sergio upset about the better courtesy cars at the BMW Italian Open, or that John Daly was now leading all tours in greens, oranges, yellows and pretty much all pastels in regulation?
Garcia has been fodder for the fourth estate almost as much as Daly, albeit with less extreme highs and lows. The high point came here last year, or at any number of his Ryder Cup triumphs. The low point may have been his petulant press conference after losing the 2007 British Open to Padraig Harrington. Coming into this week, one newspaper headline read, "Sergio spinning wheels," and another, "Garcia finds game in downswing again."
El Nino made his first professional cut at age 14 and has amassed seven Tour wins and 12 international victories. He's led Europe on five Ryder Cup teams. He was within a roll of the ball of winning the '07 British, and lost in playoffs in two of the four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments in 2008, when he ascended all the way to No. 2 in the World Ranking. He's done it all minus a major title, and his solid resume casts him as a very old 29.
Alas, his behavior has at times told a different story, most recently when he criticized the setup at Augusta National after finishing well back in the pack at this year's Masters. He came to TPC Sawgrass on the heels of his first missed cut, at Quail Hollow, in more than a year. He was 153rd on Tour in driving accuracy, this after leading the field in that department at the 2008 Players. He was putting poorly again. In short, he was searching.
"I think this is a good place," he said. "It's a tough course, but it's a good place for me to hopefully turn around and start going in the right direction."
On Thursday, he did, making five birdies. He also made two bogeys and a double-bogey, and briefly looked like he wanted nothing more than to tomahawk his club into the turf.
That afternoon, at least, brought some levity. A Web site had held a contest to "dress Sergio" for round two, and his fans had pulled a few strings in order to help reveal which outfit had won.
"James, the 'G' on the front — his mom is really good friends with someone who works for the PGA Tour," said Mack Byram, a 14-year-old 8th-grader in the Garcia fan club. "It was between red, blue and kumquat, and kumquat won. We presented the outfit, and got Adidas shoes, shirts, shorts, belt and caps. All seven of us!"
Garcia shot 71-73-73 in the first three rounds, which was not great but hardly embarrassing. On Sunday, starting his round nearly five hours before the leaders, he took a driver out of his bag, swung and bisected the first fairway, his ball soaring beyond the reach of playing partner Mike Weir.
As he'd hoped, Garcia seemed to be going the right direction. He went two under for his first four holes, and as he walked down the par-4 fifth he could have looked over and seen Adam Scott on the practice range, working with super-coach Butch Harmon. Scott had missed his fifth cut in a row Friday. Now that was struggling.
Garcia? He was one under, a respectable score on a diabolical golf course. What was the problem?
Then came the loose shots, the ones that have held Garcia back since he broke out in 2008. He blew his tee shot into the trees right of the sixth fairway but scrambled to save par. He flipped his ball to the kids in the SERGIO! GARCIA! shirts.
"I got his glove, and he signed it," Byram said. "Saturday he looked really frustrated, but not today."
The frustration would come. Garcia overshot the green on the 237-yard, par-3 eighth hole, and his flop-shot second seemed to go off in his hands, the ball bleeding 35 feet past the pin. Bogey.
On the par-5 ninth, Garcia throttled back to a 3-wood but still hit his tee shot well down the left side of the fairway, past Weir's drive. Garcia swung the 3-wood again for his second shot, only this time it strayed left as it cleared a stand of trees guarding the green, and nearly came to rest in a flower bed. He smartly aimed away from the pin with his third, using a bank on the right side of the green to stop his ball and send it rolling back toward the hole.
Then he three-putted, barely missing his 30-foot birdie putt before blowing his five-foot comebacker. He took a long look at the offending hole, then wrote his 6 down on the scorecard.
Still, Garcia did not kick, throw, curse or spit on anything. He and Weir were simpatico, a couple of TaylorMade guys who were different enough — one righty, one lefty; one Ryder Cup guy, one Presidents Cup guy — to present no threat to one another.
They smiled and chatted their way along the course. Garcia seemed to enjoy Weir's successes, and vice versa. And Garcia still had his fans. Roughly 200 people followed the twosome despite the stifling heat, presumably only some of them Canadian, even while everyone else was pontificating about Tiger's biggest final-round comebacks.
On the back nine, Garcia gave them something to get excited about. He made three birdies and two bogeys, then an eagle 3 on the 16th hole. Two pars, the last after a daring escape from the trees right of the 18th fairway, and Garcia was in with a three-under 69, two under for the tournament. He wouldn't win, and he wouldn't even crack the top 10, but the champ had acquitted himself well, even knocking in a testy three-footer for his final stroke.
He walked under the tunnel behind the 18th green and flipped his glove to a boy who had the temerity to request it. Garcia continued to walk and, unsmiling, tossed a few balls into the crowd on either side of the chute leading to the scoring hut.
"He's not happy," someone said from the crowd after a quick read of Garcia's body language.
As Sergio signed his card, caddie Glen Murray stood with his black bag. Some of the seams were ripped, as if someone had hit it hard with a golf club. After a few minutes Garcia came out the doors, followed closely by his manager, Carlos Rodriguez.
"He's not talking to anybody today," Rodriguez told the small scrum of reporters. "Sorry."
Not talking? After shooting a 69 on this golf course? Garcia signed a few more autographs for the railbirds on the patio outside the clubhouse, and then he disappeared, as mysterious as ever.