Sergio Garcia Changes the Picture

Sergio Garcia Changes the Picture

If you were one of the top dozen players in the world, would you remake your swing? That takes courage, guts, cojones. But last year, after struggling to reach his vast potential, 24-year-old Sergio Garcia took the risk. In 2002 he’d won $2.4 million, finished in the top 10 in all four majors and risen to fourth in the world. Still he was dissatisfied. It wasn’t enough for ambitious “El Nino,” the kid who shot to stardom at the PGA Championship at Medinah in his rookie year, with an eyes-shut miracle shot that announced his arrival on the world stage.

Yet he finished a stroke behind Tiger Woods that day, and while Garcia’s name kept popping up on leader boards at the majors in the next four years, he never closed the deal. “He was going to be the guy who battled Tiger,” says Garcia’s buddy Jesper Parnevik. “That’s hard to live up to.”

Sergio was a crowd pleaser, with his suerte-o-muerte (“luck-or-death”) style and bold swing — a quirky motion in which he drew the club back to the outside, looped it back in line with the target and let the clubhead lag far behind to generate power. But by the spring of 2003 he had decided he needed a move that would hold up better under Sunday-at-Augusta pressure. As a career move, it took courage — or something.

“It takes some real stones to change your swing when you’re one of the top 10 or 15 golfers in the world,” says NBC’s Jimmy Roberts. “It’s a leap of faith.”

Like the jump he made after that miracle shot at Medinah, it’s a leap Garcia takes with nothing held back. On or off the course, he might be the game’s most romantic character.

“He’s romantic all right. He’s chased my nannies around a few times,” says Parnevik, whose children’s babysitters have included Woods’s fiancee, Elin Nordegren. Undaunted by his breakup with tennis goddess Martina Hingis last year, Garcia went clubbing with model Nikki Novak after they filmed a Michelob commercial about (what else?) going clubbing. In October he cavorted with Hollywood starlet Jessica Alba in Las Vegas.

“Don’t worry, Sergio won’t calm down,” says Parnevik. “He’ll always be the caffeine jolt of the Tour.”

We sent sportswriter Luis Fernando Llosa to meet with Garcia. They spoke in Sergio’s native Spanish, and Llosa delivered a free-flowing chat with GOLF MAGAZINE’s most ebullient Contributing Player, who expects to make headlines this year.

GOLF This will be your fifth year on Tour. Are you still the same kid who hit that shot at Medinah?

GARCIA Playing well has brought a bit of fame, but I’ve tried to change as little as possible. I keep in mind the goal of having fun — doing everything with as much passion as possible.

GOLF The other day you were on the range, clapping the other players on the back and bugging Vijay Singh, sticking a driver within an inch of vulnerable parts of his anatomy as he practiced. You seem carefree.

GARCIA It’s my Spanish roots. When I was little, an amateur on the Spanish national team, I was always fooling around, playing pranks, pinchando a otros [pestering others]. Now I get along with practically every player on Tour. Especially Vijay, Jesper, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Charles Howell. When I play with Ernie or Retief, my caddie, Glenn [Murray], and I put stuff in their bags — stones, full bottles of water — to weigh them down. When their caddies try to shoulder the bags, they get a shock.

GOLF You’re pretty much a Tour veteran by now. Does it ever get old?

GARCIA It’s not a camino de rosas [path of roses]. It’s hard work. There are times you hit a mala rachilla, a bad stretch, when things don’t work out. But if you keep your enthusiasm and ganas, desire, you will win in the end.

GOLF What goes through your head during a tournament round?

GARCIA To concentrate intensely for 4 and a half hours, that’s too hard for me. Too tiring. I concentrate lo maximo on the golpe, the stroke, but between strokes I’m interacting with the crowd or laughing with my caddie, talking about the spectators, the cute girls.

GOLF You’re not like Tiger, who puts on that death-mask intensity.

GARCIA I can’t have fun playing golf that way. But there is no exact science here. Everyone does it differently.

GOLF The stakes are higher than when you were a kid in Spain, playing for Cokes with the wealthy members at the club where your father, Victor, was the pro.

GARCIA We get Cokes for free now!

GOLF That shot at last year’s British Open would have been worth a lot of Cokes. On the 17th hole in the third round, you holed out a wedge from 67 yards.

GARCIA That was spectacular. What made it bonito [pretty] is that my ball was in a very bad position, stuck in high rough. I hit with all my might and barely moved it! It took two minutes just to find it. Then I was able to hit it onto the fairway, 67 yards out. From there I was hoping to get close enough to make five, bogey, and escape without too much damage. And the ball went in the hole. It was like scoring a golazo — a huge goal — in the 85th minute in the Champions League final in soccer. The crowd went loco. It was a beautiful thing.

GOLF Do any of the other young players worry you?

GARCIA Chuck Howell has a lot of potential. Adam Scott, of course. Luke Donald is a bit older, but he is among the players on the way up. But they don’t worry me. I like seeing other good young players coming up. We all want golf to do well, and the young guys are important to that.

GOLF How have you been spending your time off the course?

GARCIA Playing tennis, listening to music — to Eminem, 50 Cent, Madonna. I watch cartoons, too. Bugs Bunny and Road Runner, but what I like a lot now on the Cartoon Network are the Japanese anime cartoons. They’re creative. I love movies, of course. Terminator 3 and Bad Boys II — lots of action. Sports movies, action movies, comedies — I’ll go to those, but not las de amor. Not romance. It’s not that I don’t like love, but on the screen it bores me.

GOLF There are people who say you are the Don Juan of the Tour.

GARCIA No, hombre. I like women, there’s no doubt about that. But you go through phases in life, and as you get older you look for something more… serious.

GOLF How did your relationship with Martina Hingis end? Are you on good terms?

GARCIA It’s complicated. It’s over. Unfortunately. But everything is fine — I saw her at Wimbledon. We talked a little. She looked happy.

GOLF Nikki Novak was the girl in your Michelob commercial. Didn’t you two go out after the filming?

GARCIA (laughing) No, no. Well, the truth is, we did go out for awhile. We went to a club with a group of other people. We danced.

GOLF What are you driving these days?

GARCIA TaylorMade.

GOLF No, what car?

GARCIA Ferrari. A blue one. But I’m thinking of selling it and buying a Mercedes SLR McLaren. And I just bought a Subaru Impreza.

GOLF In 2002 you won the Mercedes Championship and finished in the top 10 in all four majors. But last year you and your father, who has always been your swing coach, decided to overhaul your swing. Why?

GARCIA To be honest, it’s something I have talked about with my father for some time. I noticed that when I was playing well, it seemed I couldn’t fail. But when I was not at my best, I would run into difficulties. I had a swing that required too much rhythm. In high-pressure moments, it was hard to control: My body would move a bit too quickly and the swing lagged behind. The ball would veer to the left.

Last year, after I had a couple bad tournaments, I spoke with my dad. He was a little afraid. He said, “You are doing well. Changing your swing can be complicated.” I said, “Look, if I am going to do it, I should do it now, before it’s too late.” There was risk, but I had more to gain than to lose. I felt I could be winning some of the tournaments I was losing. I said, “Dad, thanks to God, most things in my life are resolved, and now it’s worthwhile to make the attempt. At the end of the day my career will be better.”

GOLF You were occasionally brilliant last fall. But only occasionally.

GARCIA The first 3½ months were hard, playing in tournaments and worrying about the smallest details of my swing. When you are making changes, it is easy to worry and doubt: “Maybe I’ve made a mistake,” and then everything goes haywire. But I took it calmly. Staying calm has helped me re-create my swing more quickly. If it takes a year, it will be worth the wait.

GOLF Seve Ballesteros has said he wishes you all the best, but thinks you should leave your swing alone. He thinks you should stick with what’s natural.

GARCIA He has always been a good friend, and I thank him. But I’m not going to change from having a big lag to nothing. What we are trying to do, my father and I, is minimize it. Make it smaller and easier to control.

I’m not going to go from a big lag to swinging the club like Nick Faldo. We are working on the takeaway so that it stays more on line, rather than outside. This helps me make the swing a little longer — to force the club to be a little more on plane — and that in turn helps me ensure that the clubhead points more at the target, instead of a bit to the left. There is still a lag, but the club isn’t going as far behind my body. So I can control it better. And it helps: I don’t have as many problems hooking shots.

GOLF You launched this overhaul in hopes of winning majors, didn’t you?

GARCIA Right. I’ve had opportunities. But winning a major is not only about playing well. It’s about having “winner’s luck.” I had winner’s luck in 1999 at Medinah, but it didn’t take me all the way. Tiger had it in ’97. Ben Curtis last year. There are players who make it, and there are others who remain on the verge, like Phil Mickelson and me. You just have to keep working and trying.

GOLF Tiger changed his swing several years ago and it paid off. But it’s still quite a risk to tinker with your swing.
GARCIA I’ve always felt I should do things 100 percent or not do them. It’s all or nothing. That’s what makes me a good athlete — doing things with all the ganas I can.

GOLF And what if it doesn’t work out?

GARCIA You have to try with all the confidence in the world and be OK with how it turns out. When you are way up there, everybody loves you, but when you are heading down, there will not be so many. At the end of the day there’s you, your family and a couple of friends, and that’s it.

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