FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (AP) — “El Nino” is no longer a little boy, even if he sometimes still behaves like one.
The Spaniard whose future once looked so promising is still chasing the first of what was expected to be a string of major championship wins, except now he’s standing on the cusp of 30.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Sergio Garcia said to laughter Tuesday afternoon. “Very close to 30 now.”
A former NFL player once ridiculed “potential” as “a French word meaning ‘you haven’t done a damn thing yet.”‘ Apparently it translates into Spanish as well. Garcia, who turned pro 10 years ago, has won seven times on the PGA Tour and another 11 events worldwide. But with the U.S. Open just two days off, he’s 0-for-39 in the tournaments that count most.
“That’s what I’m here for, to try to win it. If I didn’t think it was possible,” Garcia said, “I would probably be back at home watching (TV) or something like that.”
Garcia teased the golf world with a glimpse of how good he can be in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. Playing with a bravado that belied his years, he battled Tiger Woods shot for shot until Woods’ approach into the 18th green settled within two-putt range. Garcia played a starring role for Europe at the Ryder Cup two years after that, raising hopes for a rivalry that might extend until he and Woods, four years Garcia’s senior, had to watch their waistlines more closely than each other.
What followed instead was a litany of alibis, needless drama and self-inflicted wounds, beginning with the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
The notoriously tough New York crowd ribbed Garcia mercilessly for wayward shots, constantly re-gripping his club before swinging – “Just hit it, waggle boy!” became their chant – and even for his choice of girlfriends, at the time, former tennis star Martina Hingis.
Garcia gave them plenty of fuel, at one memorable moment, with a middle-finger salute. Then Saturday, what started as a steady rain when Woods played in the morning became a steady downpour by afternoon. Moments after walking off the course, a waterlogged Garcia whimpered that if their tee times had been reversed, USGA officials would have protected Woods by postponing play.
As the backlash from those remarks gained steam, Garcia left a note of apology in Woods’ locker. Lot of good that did. Paired together for the final round, Woods staged a clinic on how to wrap up a major and won by a half-dozen strokes. People who claim you can learn more by losing didn’t take Garcia into account. He lost plenty after that, becoming less gracious nearly every time it happened in a big four event.
The low point came at the British Open in 2007, when Padraig Harrington beat Garcia in a playoff and the Spaniard never once mentioned his rival’s name in a lengthy interview afterward. What Garcia couldn’t stop whining about, though, was all the forces that conspired against him.
Never mind that he started the day three shots clear of the field and could have won in regulation with a par 18.
“It seems to me like every time I get in this kind of position, I have no room for error. I need to miss one shot,” he said, “and I rarely get many good breaks.”
It’s been noted that the guys who make their own breaks win majors, in part because they expend little time and energy cursing their luck, focusing instead on the things they can control. Asked whether his temperament helped or hurt his play, Garcia responded, “I think as you get older, you learn from things you’ve done in the past, and you try to mature from those things. …
“I can change a little bit,” he added, “but not too much, because then I wouldn’t be myself.”
It’s revealing that when Harrington was asked the same question about Garcia’s temperament, he responded, “I would suggest I’m probably the last person who could be considered neutral in that matter to give a comment.”
Last year, Garcia could have made a good argument for staying the course. Using a belly putter, he finally won a big tournament, The Players Championship, two other tournaments overseas, posted a half-dozen Top 10 finishes and climbed to the No. 2 ranking in the world.
This year, he came to Doral in mid-March with a chance – in Tiger’s absence – to claim the top spot. He finished 31st that week, hasn’t sniffed the Top 10 since and missed two cuts, including last week.
“A couple of personal things happened, and that didn’t help,” Garcia said, apparently referring to his breakup with girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman, daughter of golfer Greg Norman.
“Then obviously you lose a little bit of confidence, and it’s harder to recover from that. But the good thing is it’s moving forward,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenges.”
He’d better be. The clock is ticking.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected]