Sergio García has felt heartbreak on and off the course that has altered his outlook on golf

Sergio García has felt heartbreak on and off the course that has altered his outlook on golf

Once one of the straightest long drivers on Tour, Garcia ranks 92nd in total driving this year and has only one top 10 finish in nine starts. He came in 47th at the Players.
Robert Beck/SI

It’s dusk on the Monday before the Players Championship, and
Sergio García is running full speed on a soccer pitch. The lights
have come on at Davis Park in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and García
is in command, shouting to his manager in Spanish and at Ricky
Barnes in English, weaving among sunburned caddies and weathered
barkeeps, the ball an extension of his bright red cleats. When
his team is awarded a free kick, García is the one to take it. He
is 20 yards from the goal, but the shot might as well be a tap-in
putt. He races toward the ball, bends it leftfooted and watches
it crash into the net. Golfers-caddies 1, Lynch’s Irish Pub 0.
“Surprisingly skillful for a professional golfer,” says Keith
Doherty, originally from Belfast, the manager of Lynch’s and a
referee for the match. “I was like, Man, this guy can ball.”

In the two years since García won the Players—his last PGA Tour
victory—soccer has been one of the few things he can count on,
more forgiving than golf, steadier than any romance.

It’s the game he and his father and coach, Victor, discuss over
long-distance calls. The game García hugs tightly whether he is
winning golf tournaments or suffering through dry spells. El Niño
is 30 now, eons removed from the teenager who hit off tree roots
at Medinah. He has lost majors, lovers and, on the golf course of
late, his way.

“We’re the young guys with gray hair,” Adam Scott,
29, says of himself and García, friends and former Players
winners with similar career arcs. “We’ve been pretty lucky, but
we’ve also gone through the low times. I played with him on
Saturday at Augusta, and he obviously was struggling: That was
clear. He didn’t enjoy himself on the course. I can relate.”

Like Scott, García finds himself on the fringes of the game’s elite,
caught between the insurmountable peak of Tiger versus Phil and
the oncoming tidal wave of Rory and Ryo. Sergio has been at this
for so long—to and fro across the Atlantic, dancing at the Ryder
Cup, getting stomped at the Ryder Cup, a foil to Tiger—that he
can’t help but reflect on the happiness and heartache of his
golfing life. He can go from sounding like a sage one minute to a
homesick kid at sleepaway camp the next. It’s in his makeup, the
emotion, in good times and bad.

“It’s always hard to be far from home, but this is the life I chose, and I don’t regret it,”
García says. “But I do love going back home and playing soccer
and playing tennis and simply hanging out with my family and
friends. I enjoy time off the
golf course. It’s the life I
chose, and I have to do
my best to enjoy it as much as

Alvaro Quiros, also from Spain, has seen García up
close and from a distance and watched the ebbs and flows of his
countryman’s career. “He used to be second in the world, and
everyone wanted to see him as the opposite of Tiger, but it’s not
that easy,” Quiros says. “Nike, Tiger. Adidas, Taylor Made,
Sergio. Opposite. We are speaking about the greatest player of
the world in history, Tiger. This is a very, very heavy stone.”

Who could have predicted a decline for García after winning the
Players in a playoff over Paul Goydos, a victory marked by
exquisite ball striking and stretches of sublime putting? In the
gloaming that year García climbed the stairs of the giant TPC
Sawgrass clubhouse, thanked Tiger for skipping the tournament,
accepted the trophy from Phil and kissed it like a newborn. A
couple of hours later he was at Lynch’s Irish Pub, with its
dollar bills on the ceiling, live music in the corner and soccer
players behind the bar. García signed autographs and partied into
the night.

His great play continued through the summer, but it
took him only so far. That August, in the final round of the PGA
Championship, García dumped an approach shot into the water on
Oakland Hills’ 16th and watched Padraig Harrington take a major
from him for the second straight year. In García’s next start, at
the Barclays, Vijay Singh rolled in a bomb and beat him in a
playoff. That September at the Tour Championship, García lost yet
another playoff, this one to Camilo Villegas. He had to settle
for a great year, not the career-defining one that was only a few
strokes away.

Then came García’s heartbreak off the course, the
end of his three-year relationship with Greg Norman’s daughter,
Morgan–Leigh, in March 2009. “Probably the first time I have
been really in love,” he said at the time.

García, the best long-straight driver since Morgan-Leigh’s dad, admitted that his
head wasn’t into golf and soon was scattering tee shots. His
scores rose, and his confidence dipped. A month after the breakup
he shot 75-74 on the weekend at the Masters—­the tournament that
has defined Spain’s golfing heroes, Seve Ballesteros and Jose
María Olázábal, more than any other. Despondent, García said of
Augusta National, “I don’t like it, to tell you the truth. I
don’t think it’s fair. It’s too much of a guessing game. I don’t
care; they can do what they want. I simply come here and play and
then go home.” He was a man with a dark cloud over his head. At
Lynch’s, García’s soccer pals had their own diagnosis: “The
putter’s killing him.”

For García, the fog still hasn’t completely lifted, ­despite a fourth-place finish at the
Accenture Match Play Championship in February. In recent weeks he
has been experimenting with an interlocking grip—no small
adjustment even for a professional.

“It feels as if “the interlocking grip” keeps my hands a little more together,” García
says. “Unfortunately, because I’ve played my whole life with
either a 10-finger or an overlap [grip], I don’t have enough
strength in the three fingers that you use when you interlock it,
and it feels quite weak. I think if I manage to work it and it
gets to the point where it works really good and I play a couple
of tournament rounds and it feels good out there, I might change
it because I like the way it feels when I practice with it.”

At the Players, though, it was the overlap grip, and García made the
cut comfortably with rounds of 69 and 70. Though he finished
47th, he played with a smile, a marked difference from the
slumped shoulders of the last year. “I’m not going to lie to
you,” García said after a third-round 71. “I’m not having the
best time golfwise. You’re never bulletproof. When things are
going right on and off the course, everything seems to be fine,
but if things aren’t, it can play with your head and things get
tougher.” Is he close to his 2008 Players form? “I’m close,”
Garcia says, “but I’m not close close.”

Lee Westwood, who has returned from his own precipitous fall, predicts that García will
be back. “He’s simply a bit short of confidence at the moment.”

And then there are the lads at Lynch’s, who played García and his soccer team to a 3-3 draw, though Doherty says there was a
scoring dispute. Not to worry. The two sides have agreed to a
rematch before the 2011 Players. All things considered, Sergio
would be happy to lose the football match if he could return to
Lynch’s on Sunday night to celebrate a different victory.