LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sergio Garcia came to this Ryder Cup, his fifth, as one of the European team’s most enthusiastic and accomplished players. Known as someone who couldn’t make the pressure putt on Sundays during the season, Garcia seemed to make everything in sight when he played against the Americans. In the absence of Colin Montgomerie, he embodied the passion and the will of the European team.
Anthony Kim came in as a rising 23-year-old star, but a Ryder Cup neophyte. His talent was undeniable, but many wondered how he would handle golf’s biggest stage. When the pairings were announced on Saturday night, their match, the first in Sunday’s singles competition, was the instant eye-catcher.
The atmosphere on the first tee was electrifying, as Kim waved to the crowd and Garcia grinned at the blue European flags and singing fans.
Kim set the tone right away after both players knocked their approach shots stiff on the first hole. Garcia asked Kim if he wanted to mutually concede the putts and halve the hole, but Kim declined. “Let’s putt ’em,” he said quietly.
Garcia made his putt and then conceded Kim’s, but the tactic by Kim was shrewd — and straight out of the Tiger Woods playbook. Kim wasn’t expecting any gifts, and he was prepared to make everything. If Garcia wanted to win, he’d have to hole everything, too.
Kim won the second hole with another birdie, and they halved the next three holes, par-birdie-par. Kim won the sixth with a par, and as Garcia began to press, his game unraveled. He put two balls in the water on the seventh hole, missed a short putt that would have won the eighth, and then missed another un-conceded putt from close range on the 11th.
Walking onto the 12th tee box, Garcia gave his bag a front kick that would have made Bruce Lee proud. Clubs clanked out and a shower of boos filled the air.
Kim, who had high-fived fans on his way to the 12th tee, only acknowledged Garcia’s outburst with a slight curl of his lip as he addressed his tee shot. Then he smoothed a hybrid tee shot that split the fairway.
It was clear throughout their match that Garcia didn’t have his typical Ryder Cup mojo. In some ways, he was playing a mirror image of himself.
Kim, five years Garcia’s junior, was thriving in the Ryder Cup atmosphere. He smiled constantly, waved to fans in the fairways and played a free-flowing game. Kim was living up to the hype.
Both Kim and Garcia will certainly be stalwarts for their teams for many Ryder Cups to come, but it seemed that more was riding on this match than one point and Ryder Cup pride. As Kim leaves Valhalla, his performance has catapulted him to the upper echelon of the sport.
But as Garcia leaves, he might have the feeling that another elite player has his number.