The Puzzling Case of Sergio Garcia

The Puzzling Case of Sergio Garcia

Garcia missed the putt on Carnoustie's 18th hole that would have won the Open.

Sitting alone on the stage before a roomful of journalists, the press officer for the R&A taps his fingers on the table, fidgeting like a nervous student waiting for the principal. His unenviable task: hosting the loser’s press conference at the 2007 British Open. Sergio Garcia walks in, head bowed, jaw clenched. In the last few hours, he has lost his three-shot lead, bogeyed the 72nd hole when par would have won the Claret Jug, and fallen to Padraig Harrington in a play-off. He is irritable.

“I know you’re bitterly disappointed,” the British fellow stutters. Garcia looks up. “No, I’m thrilled,” he says. “Happiest man alive.” He then wallows in a soliloquy of self-pity. He blames his loss mostly on bad luck (“I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot 1-over”) and a sluggish greens crew that delayed his approach to 18 (“Seemed to take a long time to rake two bunkers.”)

Fast-forward six months to January’s Dubai Desert Classic. Garcia has agreed to discuss Carnoustie, and his petulant comments, for the first time since the Open. He answers his hotel-suite door wearing a T-shirt and red-and-yellow shorts (the colors of the Spanish flag). He takes a seat on a sofa and returns to playing soccer on his PlayStation. There’s a long, awkward silence as his thumbs tap away on the keypad. It’s as if he doesn’t want the conversation to begin.

So Sergio, about Carnoustie…

“I don’t regret anything,” he says, clicking away. “I have always been this way: honest and wearing my heart on my sleeve. Probably too much. There are people who love me and people who hate me. I’m not going to change. Some people love it when you are not doing well. But you can’t be loved by everyone. Sometimes I can control myself. Sometimes I can’t. You only hear about it when I can’t control myself.”

Fair enough. If we’re going to criticize Garcia for fire-breathing press conferences or giving a fan the finger at the 2002 U.S. Open or spitting into the cup after missing a par putt at the 2007 WGC-CA Championship, we should acknowledge that he’s a superstar who’s often approachable, sociable, and generous. That he signs autographs until his wrist stiffens, and gives countless balls and gloves to kids. “I am a role model, and that’s not easy to live with,” Garcia said in 2002. “There is a bit of Seve in me. I have to fight to control my emotions.”

He’s still fighting. And still searching.

It was Garcia’s exuberant flashes of emotion that thrust him into the spotlight in 1999. Remember that hop, skip and jump after his impossible shot against an oak tree at Medinah at the PGA Championship? The media and fans loved him then. Here was a human rival for the robotic Tiger Woods. He was Seve 2.0. He swaggered, cried, smiled, waved, laughed, entertained. Sergio and Tiger were about to forge golf’s next great rivalry. But almost winning at Medinah was, perhaps, the worst thing that could have happened to Garcia at 19. “He came out like Tiger, and it looked so easy,” says his former Ryder Cup teammate and partner Jesper Parnevik. “But in his mind he hasn’t lived up to expectations.”

The expectations — and the endless din of “When will you win a major?” — have worn on the Spaniard. Sergio, 28, has 17 worldwide wins and has played 38 majors, with 13 top 10s — but no victories. Carnoustie, and that 12-foot lip-out, was his best major chance to date.

“I still see that putt in my head every once in a while,” says Garcia, pausing his PlayStation. “That Sunday night, I didn’t cry. But I could feel that my body was heavy. I walked around the beach at home [in Spain] for a couple of days to clear my head. Sometimes I definitely feel I am an unlucky golfer. But you can’t live your life thinking, ‘If only.'”

Garcia is convinced the answers lie within. Unlike the previous Best Player Without a Major, Phil Mickelson — who changed his gamblin’ ways — we won’t soon see Sergio: Extreme Major Makeover. “What is clear in my mind is I am not going to change my whole life to win a major,” Garcia says. “It is not worth it. I love my life. Nobody is telling me that, if I change, I am going to win 10 majors. I would rather win 30, 40 or 50 tournaments and no majors than win one major and that’s it. Just winning one tournament, even if it’s a major, doesn’t prove to me that you’ve had a successful career. If you can tell me that if I put my hand in the fire and not get burned, and I will win, then maybe. But nobody has that kind of will. Except maybe Tiger.”

Unlike Woods, Garcia is not blessed — or burdened — with an obsessive nature that propels him to greatness. There’s no beast inside that feeds only on major silverware. “Roger Federer said that he feels like he has created a monster that needs to win every tournament,” Garcia says. “Tiger is like that. But he enjoys being that way. Just because it is the right way for him doesn’t mean it is the right way for somebody else. I probably wouldn’t enjoy that kind of intensity. Golf is not the only thing in my life.”

This marks a change of message from Garcia. A year ago, he blamed bad luck for his major woe. Now, he’s trying to convince us, and perhaps himself, that he doesn’t want it as badly as Woods. He seems to lack the desire to do what it takes to challenge for World No. 1. And to say there’s more to golf than majors — Mickelson sang that song for years. But after his 2004 Masters win, he admitted it was spin — a defense mechanism, just in case he never broke through.

Garcia’s unwillingness to change who he is at his core can be traced at least as far back as 2003, when, frustrated with the tinkering he’d done to his swing, he almost walked away from golf for good. “I thought about quitting because I felt I was losing control,” he says. “When you start losing your feel, and you can’t control the ball as much as you want, you lose that drive. That’s a little bit of what happened to David Duval. Thankfully for me, I got it back. But if…” He pauses. “I don’t even want to think about doing something else. At the moment, there is nothing else I want to do.” He smiles. “It’s too late now to play for Real Madrid.”

Sergio Garcia is torn between two lovers. It’s the eve of the Dubai Desert Classic, and he’s hitting — and mostly missing — five-footers on the practice green, alternating between his short putter and belly putter. His caddie Billy Foster grabs the long putter to demonstrate a technique and holes several in a row. Garcia is visibly frustrated. Above, on the second-story clubhouse patio, a lounge singer strums his guitar and serenades drinkers with an Eagles song, providing a fitting soundtrack: “Take it easy, take it easy. Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy…”

In May, Garcia won the Players Championship, his biggest Tour win yet and his first victory since 2005, a rough patch due in large part to poor putting. Before his erratic putter heated up at Sawgrass (he had 28 putts in the final round), his well-documented woes on the greens had continued in 2008. Despite turning to short-game guru Stan Utley, Sergio had experimented with four grips (conventional, left-hand-low, claw, and split-hand) and ranked 168th in putting average through the Players. He even placed a short and long putter in his bag at the same time, “a safety net in case I didn’t feel 100 percent with the short putter,” he explains.

Of course, safety nets are often reserved for performers who expect to fall.

When writers ask Sergio about putting, they prepare for a prickly response. He’s tired of the questions. He’s also tired of what he considers a double standard. The media loves straight talk (see: Woody Austin) and wishes Tiger Woods would say something — anything — beyond boilerplate. Garcia is frank, direct, genuine — and, yes, sometimes surly. And he’s slammed for it.

“It is so difficult to find the right line,” Garcia says. “If you say nothing, you are worthless. But if you say what you feel, you are worthless still because you get killed. You can only take so many hits. I get on OK with the media. I don’t have any guys I hate. But it is not the best relationship because when I say what I feel, some people kill me for it.”

Clarke Jones, Garcia’s manager since 1999, admits that he’s sometimes disappointed by his client’s behavior. “But whatever heads Sergio has bitten off, there was no malice intended,” Jones says. “The media puts so much pressure on people. Colin Montgomerie still has to talk about why he has not won a major. Sergio should not have to answer that anymore. Everyone knows he wants to win one. He’s emotional. He’s human. He cares. His attractiveness as an athlete is due to the fact that he’s an emotional, fiery competitor. But Sergio is Sergio. People either love the guy or get turned off by him. Yeah, there are times where he gets a little long-winded. But it’s because he cares so much. He’s not perfect. Nobody is.”

Garcia is almost perfect in the Ryder Cup, with a career record of 14-3-3. Every two years, the promise that is El Nino is realized. He loosens up at its very mention. His shoulders relax. He laughs. “I need to get those good vibes from the Ryder Cup into my stroke-play game,” he says.

So why hasn’t he? Because, he suggests, he needs the emotional connection of his teammates. In majors, playing alone, there’s a fragility; he’s not swaddled in the blue-and-yellow security blanket of Team Europe. It’s a golf cliche: focus, focus, focus. But for Garcia, too much inward focus is a bad thing. He needs the lifeline of teammates and fans.

“When I play with someone who’s a friend or whose company I enjoy, I play well,” he says. “When I play with somebody I am not that fond of, I tend to struggle. Those good vibes and bad vibes affect my game. If I get too focused, that’s not how I feel most comfortable. I don’t loosen up. That’s the difference with the Ryder Cup and the majors. When I have a friend next to me who I can talk to and keep loose with, I relax more. That’s one of the reasons I have been successful in Ryder Cups.” And in majors? “I feel lonely, like there is something missing.”

Another Ryder Cup hero says Garcia would be seeking his second straight Open this year if he’d changed one thing at Carnoustie — and not his putting. “It was a strategic problem,” says Colin Montgomerie. “He was ahead of the chasing pack. It was the first time he had been in that situation in a major. Sergio was caught between ‘Attack, or protect your lead?’ I have done that. He protected too much on 18 when he hit [a 2-iron] off the tee. The proof? In the playoff he hit driver and almost made 3. It would have been easier if he had [started Sunday] tied for the lead instead of three ahead. Someone was going to come up, and it was Padraig Harrington and Andres Romero. Now what do you do? You panic.”

Garcia agrees that he presses in majors. “Maybe I beat myself up too much and try too hard. The Ryder Cup is different. I get involved with the crowds. Being brought up in Spain, where football [soccer] is so huge, you are used to that atmosphere where everybody is cheering and screaming. It drives me a little more. If I knew the answer…”

He trails off, half smiles and shrugs. He’s still searching.