King Rut

July 16, 2007

He had me at kick.
When in the final
round of the PGA
Championship at Medinah in
1999, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia
made a miraculous escape shot
off a tree trunk, then ran to the
fairway and gave a balletlike leap
culminating in a scissors kick as
he peered to see where the ball
landed, he created a legion of aficionados, myself among them.
No matter that the Spaniard’s
gallant charge left him a shot
back of eventual winner Tiger
Woods. What I and many others
saw was the long-awaited
challenger who could go mano a
mano with Tiger in the majors: a
player with the game, the cojones
and, perhaps as important, the
magnetism that the Spanish call
duende. Surely and shortly, his
first major title would follow.

Since then, 30 majors have
been played, and Tiger has won
10. Phil Mickelson has won three,
Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh
two each. Heck, even David Duval
won one. But El Nino? Nada.
Garcia, now a grizzled 27, may or
may not be the current Best Player
Never to Have Won a Major. But
let me suggest, to my chagrin,
that now that Lefty has broken
through and then some, Sergio
is indisputably the most teasing,
tantalizing and tormenting.

Of course, Garcia is hardly
without accomplishment. He has
six PGA Tour victories, another
10 worldwide and (aided greatly
by that duende) gazillions in the
bank. Moreover, in the biennial,
pressurized Ryder Cup competition,
El Nino is El Hombre.
This has made his inability to
break through in the majors all
the more perplexing. The fellow
who’s nervelessly draining those
improbable bombs at the K Club is
the very same guy who can’t drop
one in the ocean at Augusta.

Garcia’s recent performance
in majors underscores this frustrating
inconsistency. At last
year’s U.S. Open he missed the
cut. At the British he was with
Tiger in the final twosome; if
ever there was a day to step up,
this was it. Instead, Garcia shot
a one-over 73 to the victorious
Woods’s five-under 67 and tied
for fifth. At the PGA he fi nished
in a more-than-respectable tie
for third, but six strokes in arrears
of champion Tiger. At this
year’s Masters and U.S. Open, he
fell back, with two more desultory
MCs. If we count the Players
as a quasimajor, well, score
one for Sergio: a sizzling 67—66
on the weekend vaulted him to
a strong second. Thus the maddening
reality: We’re never sure
which Sergio will show up.

A primo ball striker, Sergio’s
Achilles’ heel is his play on and
around the greens. His own
frustration with his putt ing was
betrayed in an ugly incident at
Doral in March when he spit
into the cup after he missed a
short one on 13. A sequence in
the first round of last month’s
Stanford St. Jude Championship
was equally illustrative. On
17 (his eighth hole of the day),
Sergio lipped out a tiddler, resulting
in a double bogey. To say
the least, his body language did
not exude duende. However, 10
minutes later, Sergio did appear
highly jaunty — in one of his
ubiquitous beer commercials.

In my disappointment, perhaps
I am penalizing Sergio
for having entered the scene so
early. But one way in which the
immortals tend to identify themselves
is by bagging their first
major by 30. Tiger got his at 21.
Jack Nicklaus was 22, Gary Player
23, Tom Watson 25, Arnold
Palmer and Lee Trevino 28.

So it is time, amigo. At Carnoustie
you should be able to
get to the green in grand style.
Once you’re there, pretend it’s
the Ryder Cup. I am waiting to
see you hoist the claret jug. If
that happens, I promise I will
kick up my heels.