After struggling for years, Sergio Garcia is playing like his old self again

After struggling for years, Sergio Garcia is playing like his old self again

"I'm not 19 anymore. I'm 31. I mean, people didn't look at Greg Norman the same way when he was 48 as they did when he was 23." - Sergio Garcia
Angus Murray

Sergio Garcia won't take the bait. Even after his dazzling resurgence this fall, he refuses to entertain the notion that 2012 might finally be his year in the majors. "A lot of things can happen between now and the Masters," he says. "I might come out of the house and step on a little hole and twist my ankle. You never know."

Life's funny like that. Garcia was cruising along in 2008, winning that year's Players Championship and soaring to No. 2 in the rankings. Then, in early 2009, his girlfriend, Morgan-Leigh Norman (Greg's daughter), ended their relationship. The unexpected dagger left Garcia dejected and distracted. "That is obviously not the way I like to play golf," he says now. Garcia prefers to play with the kind of flair and confidence he exhibited in October (and not the temper he showed in December), when with a renewed outlook on life — and a new girlfriend spurring him on — he snapped out of his three-year winless funk with back-to-back victories on his home soil. In a revealing interview, Garcia reflects on his revival, his personal struggles, and why, if he could do it all over again, he might have played soccer.

You showed signs of improvement throughout 2011 with three top-12 finishes in the majors, but your wins in Spain were a statement. What did you take away from those victories?
When you haven't been there for two and a half years, when you get in those situations, you're often quite tense, a little bit nervous. What I'll take away more than anything is how calm I felt. At Valderrama, I had a small lead [two shots after three rounds]. I started Sunday okay, but then I had a stretch of three or four holes when I wasn't playing great. But I wasn't panicking. And that's why I went into the back nine and played the way I did.

Given your recent surge, have your expectations changed for 2012?
Not really. I'm not going to look ahead to next year and say, "Okay, I need to win two majors and five tournaments." No — I feel like I've done that before and it doesn't work for me. I want to go out there, I want to put my best effort into it, and just let it happen. If I don't play well in one tournament — it doesn't matter which one it is — I'm meant to play that way.

You recently said that the last two years have "helped me to learn a lot about myself, not just in golf, but on a personal level." What did you learn about yourself on a personal level?
I've realized that there's a lot more to life than golf. Obviously golf is an important part of my life and I love it, but there's a lot more important things. It's also helped me to realize that if things aren't going my way or I'm not feeling good, I can only give it the importance it deserves. If I don't play well today, it can't be the end of the world, like, "Oh, this is the worst thing ever." You give it your best, and sometimes your best is not that good, and sometimes your best is very good. You've just got to realize those things.

You found it hard to focus for many months after you and Morgan-Leigh split up in 2009. Were you heartbroken?
In a way, yes.

Was that period a wash for you professionally?
Yeah, it was. When you're out there and you don't really want to be out there, obviously it's not going to be easy. Don't get me wrong — it doesn't mean that I'm not going to hit good shots, because that we can all do. But you don't care about it as much as you should. And then a couple of holes go wrong and you kind of let go. You don't even try to fight back, and that's not the way I've always played golf and the way I like to play golf. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to learn from those years. Even though those years were hard, they were good for [building character].

How difficult was it to address the split publicly? At the 2009 British Open, you said, "It was probably the first time I have been really in love."
No, it was fine. You guys know me. I've always been open and I've always said what I think even though sometimes it's gotten me into trouble. I've always tried to be as sincere as possible. It was just one of those things that we all go through in life.

And you're over it?
Yeah, definitely.

You have a new girlfriend, Nicola Horrex. When did you meet?
We've known each other for a long time. We actually met in 2004. But we never got seriously into dating until this year, just before the U.S. Open.

How much has being in a steady relationship again helped you refocus on golf?
It definitely helps. Every little thing that we've done throughout the year has helped me in my golf game and outside my golf game. I'm enjoying my life as much as possible, with the soccer, the tennis, my foundation and everything else that I do. But then having my family around and having a nice girlfriend around who makes you feel comfortable and who is there for the good and the bad — all those little things help.

You've always thrived off the attention of the galleries. Did you feel a stronger connection with them again in 2011?
Fortunately for me I've always connected with the galleries pretty much everywhere I've gone. I just haven't played well over the last couple of years. I always feel that as soon as I put myself halfway out there, the people do connect with me, and I enjoy that. It's never really been a problem.

But your emotional style has rankled a few fans throughout your career. Do you have any regrets in that regard?
No, not really. I've always done everything in the way I've felt at the moment. I'm not going to say it was always right. I'm not going to say that the way I was treated in some of those situations was right, either. I am the way I am. That's what people like about me, so I'm not going to fake it.

When you look back at the heckling you endured at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, which presumably was the toughest week you've ever had on a golf course…
No, I wouldn't say so.

What was tougher?
There have been tougher weeks than Bethpage in the past couple years. Bethpage was tough in a way because of a couple of guys heckling me, but I was playing well, I was happy, I was fine where I was. It wasn't that big a deal.

But which weeks have been tougher?
No, it's not for us to go through everything that's been going on.

Some of your best weeks in 2011 came at the majors. What is it about the big events that brings out the best in you?
I've always done better on tough courses because you feel you don't have to press as hard. You don't have to feel like you have to make every single putt, you don't have to hit every single pitching wedge to [tap-in range] because 25-under is going to win. You can just hit it to the middle of the green and two-putt and make a good par and you're not losing ground. That's always been the kind of tournament I most enjoy playing.

At the end of 2010, you switched to "The Claw" putting grip, in which your left hand does most of the work. How specifically has it helped you?
It's very simple. It's made me a lot more consistent. I'm able to pretty much start my putts on [my intended] line 98 percent of the time. The best thing for me is not only making some putts, but when I miss I leave the green thinking, "That was a good stroke. Unfortunately, it didn't go in. The next one will go in." The worst thing is leaving the green thinking, "Jesus, what a shocking putt I hit. I didn't even give it a chance."

At the BMW Championship in September, the third of the four FedEx Cup playoff events, you were asked on Saturday if you had one more push in you to go low on Sunday and qualify for the Tour Championship. You said: "I don't really care. … If I play well and I make it to Atlanta, great. I don't think it's the ideal thing for me the way I feel." You sounded unmotivated.
I was.

That's a rare admission for a Tour pro.
Well, I know myself. It's been that kind of year where there have been some positives, but at the same time because I was outside the world top 50 and didn't get to play some of the [WGCs] earlier in the year, and because I had to qualify for some of the majors, I had to play extra tournaments. In the span of 21 weeks, I played 16 tournaments. That's a lot. Every time I play more than three in a row, I'm struggling to keep my energy up. So, yeah, I'm not going to lie. I was looking forward to finishing the year.

Do you find it more difficult to get motivated than you did earlier in your career?
No, not now. The last couple of years, yes, but not now. If I did, I wouldn't play. I think as you get older, you get to know yourself a little better.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self some advice, what would you tell him?
The only thing you can tell someone is to be himself, to respect people, and to not only be the best person he can be, but to also be a good person to the guys around you. If he manages to do that, he will get something back from that.

Can you understand how Tiger's off-course distractions have affected his game?
Yeah, obviously that's a very tough situation for him to go through and more so because he's never had [to face it] throughout his whole career. He's going to have to deal with a lot things. He's going to have to make a lot of changes that I'm not sure he's prepared to do.

Like what?
Just things in general. A lot of things. He knows what he has to do. He knows the troubles he got into, so he knows the things he has to do — not only to make himself feel better but to make everyone around him feel better about him.

Do you think he can win five more majors to eclipse Jack Nicklaus's record?
Is it possible? Yes. Is he going to be able do it? I don't see it as clearly as I did a couple of years ago. Golf is funny. Sometimes it feels like you've lost it, like what happened to Lee Westwood. And now look at how he's been playing the last three or four years. If things don't change, I think it would be very tough for [Woods] to win three or more majors. If something clicks and he gets it going again, yes, he might be able to win three or four more, maybe five. He's got to make some really good decisions for him to move in the right direction.

Your best chance at a major title came at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie, where you barely missed a 10-footer on the 72nd hole to win the Claret Jug. Does that putt haunt you?
Well… [pauses]. There are some moments where you think, "It would have been nice if it would have broken a little bit right like I thought it was going to, and instead of lipping out, it lipped in." But everything happens for a reason, I guess. If it wasn't meant to be for me to make that putt and win that tournament, then so be it. You can't control those things.

You took a lot of grief for suggesting that the golf gods schemed against you that day. Do you still believe that there were other forces at work?
No, I just felt like — like I just told you — that it just didn't want to happen. It's not like I didn't try. I believe in destiny, and destiny wanted it to happen that way. So in a way there was a force there. At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is give it your best effort, and if your best effort is not good enough, what can you do?

You had another close call at the 1999 PGA at Medinah, falling just short in your pursuit of Tiger.
In the same way I played nicely all week. It was kind of similar [to Carnoustie]. Tiger was kind of running away with it and then he made a couple of bogeys in there and we got pretty close together. I remember I hit a good shot, obviously, on 16 [from the base of a tree], but also on 17. Unfortunately I didn't make the putt. So it goes back to the same [principle]: He gave it his best, I gave it my best, and unfortunately for me, his best was a little bit too good for me that week.

With your smiles and scissor kicks you brought a great energy to that event. Do you feel like you have lost some of that spark?
Well, I'm not 19 anymore. I'm 31. So of course you lose some of that, yes. I mean, people didn't look at Greg Norman the same way when he was 48 as they did when he was 23. Those things happen not only because we get older, but because there are young guys coming up who have flair and that game that people enjoy watching. That's the beauty of the game, and that's what needs to happen in the future, too.

You play a lot of competitive soccer in your spare time and you're the president of CF Borriol, your hometown team in Spain. Do you ever wonder if you could have been a better soccer player than you have been a golfer?
You could never know. But if I was born again and I had the possibility of doing the same thing I'm doing in golf at the same level in soccer, I would probably go for it.

Really? You'd play soccer instead?
Yeah, definitely. If I had to play for a really low division team my whole life, it would be tough, but if I had the chance of going up and playing with a first-division team, it would be very interesting.

You practiced with Boston's MLS team this year. You held your own, right?
Yeah. I mean, they practice more than I do, so their rhythm is better. But it's not like I'm kicking the ball [all over the place]. I know what I'm doing.

Your recent slump resulted in you missing the 2010 Ryder Cup. You attended as a special assistant, but you must have been burning to play.
Oh, definitely. There's no doubt about it. Everybody knows how much I love Ryder Cups. I'd be lying to you if I said that I didn't. That's the goal this year — to play well, to keep improving, and to make the team.

The 2012 Ryder Cup will be the first since the death of your countryman Seve Ballesteros, one of the all-time Ryder Cup greats. What's the most important thing Seve taught you?
We had some good moments. I was never really able to play with him when he was at his best because I got to know him in 1995 in Madrid. That was the very end of his good years, but we did play some practice rounds together. He was always very encouraging. He told me to be myself, to believe in my abilities, and to believe that I could do anything.

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The January issue is on newsstands and available for tablet subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more