VIRGINIA WATER, England — Tiger Woods has responded to what many believe was a racist joke aimed at him by Sergio Garcia on Tuesday. "The comment that was made wasn't silly," said the World No.1 via twitter. "It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate. I'm confident that there is real regret that the remark was made."
Garcia was on stage with his Ryder Cup teammates at a European Tour gala awards evening at the BMW PGA Championship when he was asked by compere Steve Sands from Golf Channel if he would invite Woods over for dinner at the US Open. "We will have him 'round every night," Garcia said prompting laughs from the room. Then he added the remark that caused intakes of breath. "We will serve fried chicken." It brought back memories of when Fuzzy Zoeller made a similar remark about Tiger after Woods won the 1997 Masters. The tour veteran lost sponsorship deals, including a contract with Kmart.
Garcia and Woods have been waging a war of words since the World No. 1 caused the crowd to roar at The Players Championship earlier this month at the point when Garcia was playing a shot. Garcia accused him of a lack of respect and suggested this week that Woods has been lying for 15 years. Their spat was mildly amusing if perhaps childish, but the racist undertones have made it a serious issue.
Garcia issued an apology almost immediately and Wednesday attended a hastily arranged press conference to make a public apology. He looked ash-faced and sounded distraught. He said "sorry" or "apologize" 15 times in eight minutes. So did he consider his joke racist? "Not at all. It wasn't meant that way," he said. "I was caught off guard in what seemed to be a funny question and tried to give a funny answer that came out wrong. I want to make sure everybody knows that I'm very, very sorry and I can't apologize enough times. I understand my comment was totally stupid. I want to apologize to Tiger, and anybody I could have offended and just say that I feel sick about it. I hope we can settle things down and hopefully move on."
Woods tweeted as much, too. Garcia said he had left a message with Mark Steinberg, Woods's manager. "He didn't pick up," Garcia said, "but I told him I was very sorry and would love to talk to them as soon as possible to make sure everything is okay. I told him how sorry I was and that obviously it was a bad comment that shouldn't have been said. I am sure we will be able to talk soon and I will apologize face-to-face and move forward and forget about the whole thing."
If Garcia believes this incident will be forgotten quickly, he may be in for a rude reality check. Garcia has a confrontational history with American crowds and may find he is a target of wise-cracking Philly sports fans when the U.S. Open pitches up at Merion in June, the next time Garcia will play in the States. He knows it, too. "You know, that doesn't depend on me, so the only thing I can do is say sorry."
Justin Rose and Luke Donald admitted to feeling awkward as soon as those words left Garcia's mouth. "As soon as he said it, there were some sort of nervous giggles really," Rose said. "It was a sort of Steve Williams-type moment." Tiger's former caddie cracked a racist joke against Tiger at a caddies' party during the HSBC-Champions in Shanghai last year. "It's going to be up to Tiger and Sergio how quickly it goes away and how they deal with it personally." Added Donald, one of Garcia's best friends: "We all know Sergio. He says his mind and sometimes doesn't have that filter, unfortunately."
Garcia admitted as soon as he left the dinner, "I had a sick feeling in my body. I wasn't able to sleep at all last night. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body. Difficult to hit a shot without thinking about it. But unfortunately I said it. I wish I didn't, but, you know, the only thing I can do is say sorry."
Garcia considered withdrawing from the tournament but decided to play on after meeting with European Tour chief George O'Grady and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. Both accepted his apology and Garcia said they didn't mention any disciplinary penalties against him. O'Grady said he now considers the matter closed.
Garcia's sponsors think otherwise. "Sergio Garcia's recent comment was offensive and in no way aligns with TaylorMade-adidas Golf's values and corporate culture," the company said in a statement. "We have spoken with Sergio directly and he clearly has regret for his statement and we believe he is sincere. We discussed with Sergio that his comments are clearly out of bounds and we are continuing to review the matter." The word "continuing" could mean bad news on the horizon for Garcia.
Rory McIlroy had a bad day at the office, too. Looking and sounding uncomfortable, he fielded questions about rumors, confirmed by his pal Graeme McDowell, that he is ditching his management company just 18 months after leaving his first agent, Chubby Chandler. "Look, I can't really comment on speculation at this point," McIlroy said. "Obviously you guys know something is up." Contractual reasons? "Could be." Then an uneasy and tense atmosphere punctuated by awkward silences got worse. Before his press conference, McIlroy told Sky Sports: "If you join the circus, you have to be prepared to put up with the clowns." He was asked what he meant. Was it aimed at his management? Or the media? "Just think about it. Just think about," was all McIlroy would say.
Meanwhile, the European Tour's flagship event will break out Thursday with McIlroy, Garcia, Westwood, McDowell, Donald, Rose, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els and the cream of European golf competing for a first prize of just over $1 million.