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Sergio Garcia seems beaten down by his dustup with Tiger Woods -- and the game

Sergio Garcia, US Open 2013, Merion
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Sergio Garcia started a media firestorm two weeks ago when he used a racially insensitive remark in reference to Tiger Woods.

ARDMORE, Pa. -- Cue Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack and their golden oldie song that asked, “Where is the love?”

Because that’s the Sergio Garcia story.

Where is the love? He used to love the game of golf. It was obvious. You saw it at Medinah in 1999 when he ran across the fairway and leaped to see how his shot turned out during the PGA Championship. You saw it in Ryder Cups when he bounced off teammates like the Energizer Bunny and was clearly having the time of his life.

That love, that joy, hasn’t been the same in recent years. There may be a variety of reasons for that. He definitely was not having fun Tuesday when he had to face golf’s version of the Spanish Inquisition—writers in a tabloid frenzy about his recent dustup with Tiger Woods. Even Tiger said he’s ready to move on, and certainly Sergio is, too, since he made the effort Monday to reach out to Woods on the range and shake his hand. But the media love a good catfight, especially in a sport typically devoid of interesting controversy and no, square grooves versus modified V-grooves does not count as interesting controversy.

Tuesday, Sergio reiterated in front of a room full of journalists that he was sorry for his comments about Tiger. If you need to be reminded of them, please return now to your usual programming on The Archery Channel. As one veteran golf writer said, Sergio did everything but stick the landing in his Tiger comments. That is, they were right on the money up until Sergio crossed the line with a reference to a food item that carriers racial undertones.

Tiger said earlier Tuesday that Sergio has not offered a personal apology to him. Sergio explained that he hasn’t seen Tiger in the clubhouse before or after any practice rounds and that when they shook hands on the range that it wasn’t the right place to make a personal apology “out of respect to Tiger and the other players on the range.” But he did leave a hand-written note in Tiger’s locker, and until they’re able to meet privately, that note of apology will have to suffice.

Sergio also said that he’s been given a very pleasant reception so far by fans at Merion and that he’s looking forward to this Open, and to moving past his previous mistakes. He survived this inquisition reasonably intact and was sufficiently humbled and apologetic and all the things that he should be.

That said, the question is whether Sergio can sidestep what has been a huge distraction for him the past three weeks and play his way into contention here. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ll see. It obviously doesn't help but it is my own fault. So I don’t have anyone to blame other than myself.”

He has been golf’s most interesting question mark for more than a decade. Once a player of great promise with a bright future, now he seems to have been beaten down by age (at 33!) and failure and personal mis-steps and Tiger, of course, and the game itself.

It was easier to relate to him earlier in his career when losses bothered him. He tossed an iron into a lake once. He spit into a cup at Doral. He threw a shoe over a ruling. He lived and died with his game. He cared.

These days, he doesn’t seem to care as much or love the game as much or enjoy it.

He won in Greensboro last summer shortly after Adam Scott, a good friend, had a heart-to-heart chat with him during the PGA Championship to tell Sergio to quit being so hard on himself. “He’s enthusiastic when he’s off the course,” Scott said, “and sometimes he’s enthusiastic on the course.”

We’ve heard him say he no longer considers himself good enough to win a major. Every golfer has been there, that self-loathing born of extended poor play. Funny, he still plays pretty well. He was third at Doral. Seventh at Innisbrook. Eighth at the Masters and the Players—the latter the site of the start of their latest episode when Sergio felt Tiger pulled a club from his bag so the fans would react and cause a disturbance during his backswing.

Sergio says what’s on his mind, even if it’s in the heat of the moment. That is an endearing quality that has also gotten him into trouble.

The big question is whether he can still live up to the promise he showed at 19 or whether his best golf is already behind him. He still has plenty of time and his game has gotten better over the last two years.

“I’ve obviously hit the ball better,” he said. “I had my off weeks, but I think my short game is better than it was three or four years ago. I think that things outside of golf have improved until lately, obviously. Overall, I feel a lot calmer, a little bit more mature, I guess, and all those things probably helped.”

Part of his trouble had to do with his putting. Even at his ball-striking best, when he led the PGA Tour in greens hit in regulation in 2004 and ’05, he was deficient as a putter by Tour standards. He ranked 164th and 187th in strokes gained putting in those two seasons, respectively. He lived through the rise of Tiger and saw how it was done—a great short game backed up by great putting.

Not putting well yourself is demoralizing enough but when your biggest opponent, Tiger, is one of the greatest putters of all-time, that effect cannot be measured.

He went to a claw grip a few years ago and has made progress. He ranked 27th in the Tour’s putting stats last year and currently ranks second. He is 30th in greens hit at the moment and second in scoring average. There is no reason, looking as his performance, that he shouldn’t be an Open contender. Except, perhaps, for the recent events that pose a big distraction and for his attitude.

He was contrite Tuesday, saying all the right things. “Obviously, I can see that I hurt a lot of people and that doesn’t make me feel good, I can tell you that,” Sergio said. “I wish I could go back in time and take back what I said but unfortunately, I said it. The only thing I can do is show you my respect from here on. I try to be as respectful as possible competing and hopefully, what I do will show you how much I care about everybody. So only time will tell, I guess.”

Sergio needs to love golf again, the way he did when he was that bubbly, 19-year-old El Nino. To do that, he needs to do something else first. Forgive himself.

At 33, he still has all the time in the world.

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