CHASKA, Minn. — This is a time to hate anniversaries if you’re Sergio Garcia. It was 10 years ago when America discovered Garcia, thanks to his remarkable run as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in the PGA Championship at Medinah, and that memorable eyes-closed-from-behind-the-tree shot that helped push Woods to the brink in the final round.
But, oh yeah, Tiger wound up winning that one for his first PGA Championship and his second major. Ten years later, the major championship count is Tiger 14, Sergio 0. As staggering as Tiger’s accomplishments are, Sergio’s goose egg remains the more surprising figure of the two. And this week, of course, Sergio is fielding all those 10-years-ago questions and their hidden subtext — why haven’t you won a major championship yet?
Sure, Sergio remembers Medinah. “It was my second major as a professional, and to be able to play the way I played at 19 and have a chance at winning the PGA against a guy like Tiger, who we knew how good he was going to be, was a great experience,” Garcia said Wednesday morning when he met with reporters.
That was about as far down Memory Lane as he cared to go in regard to Tiger, other than to dispel some misperceptions. “After ’99, I didn’t come home and say, ‘Oh, because of what I did at the PGA, I should win eight majors in the next six or seven years.’ You try to play your best and give yourself chances and win as many as you can. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I had my chances. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken them, but you know, it’s just a matter of keep going, keep going at it, and believing that you can do it.”
After that hopeful showing at Medinah, Garcia seemed a likely candidate to develop as a challenger for Woods and join a group that included Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. That never happened. Garcia has had a nice career. He’s won 11 times internationally and another seven times on the PGA Tour. He has several near misses in majors, notably the 2007 British Open playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie and the PGA heartbreaker last year to Harrington, again, at Oakland Hills. But Garcia has so far been no match for Woods. Tiger knows it, Sergio knows it.
Garcia hasn’t even challenged Woods very often since the ’99 PGA, other than the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. They aren’t friendly, but Woods has made a career of not getting chummy with players he views as threats. (They may have gotten off on the wrong foot when Sergio made a putt on a par 3 at Medinah and pointed back at Woods on the tee, a sort of challenge.) The rivalry has never materialized, but in that Garcia is not alone. No one has consistently challenged Tiger.
“I don’t think Tiger’s got a rival at the moment, and he’s not letting down,” Garcia said. “He keeps playing really well. To win five, six or seven events a year is very, very impressive. It’s not like he plays 35 or 40 tournaments a year, either.”
This has been a lost year in many ways for Garcia. He was out of sorts at the Masters, seeming almost disinterested, and he has never gotten his game in gear. His best showing in America was a tie for 10th at the U.S. Open and a tie for 13th at the Honda Classic. Those are his only finishes in the top 20. He settled for 22nd last week at the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, a limited-field event. For a player who was briefly ranked No. 2 in the world last year, it’s been a down period.
“My game is still not where I would like it to be — I didn’t play too good last week, but I putted very nicely, which is a good thing,” Garcia said. “Hopefully, I can get it sorted out. My short game is in good shape, so I could have a good chance here.”
Garcia is known as one of the better ballstrikers in the game, but even that part of his game is off this season. He is ranked 100th in greens in regulation, down from 37th a year ago, and 148th in birdies per round, down from 68th last year. In the most important category, scoring average, he is 49th at 70.33. In 2008, he was first at 69.12. The fact that he feels good about his putting, which has been his Achilles heel in recent years, is a rare good sign.
Hazeltine is a course that puts a premium on ballstriking, especially on approach shots, which would normally play into his strength. At the moment, however, he isn’t so confident.
“Last week, my game was quite far away, unfortunately,” he said. “I have some good practice rounds and some decent rounds on the course. It’s just a matter of putting it together for four rounds.
“I’d love to say I will be 100 percent for this week, but I can’t guarantee that.”
When speaking of his own major failures, Garcia relies on cliches — just keep trying, give yourself chances, keep believing. A writer asked him on Wednesday what he thought was missing in his quest for a major. “If I were to aim a putt an inch farther right, nothing would have been missing in one of them,” Garcia said, referring to one of his close calls. “I don’t know. When I’m playing well, there’s nothing missing.”
There was nothing missing at Medinah in ’99, when he didn’t win the tournament but won a lot of fans with his enthusiasm and his emotional play. Ten years and 40 major championship appearances later, one thing remains missing from his resume. Happy anniversary.