LOUISVILLE, Ky. — How hard can it be, really, to win a major championship?
This hard. Ben Hogan didn’t win his first until he was 34. Phil Mickelson got his at 33. Darren Clarke got his only one at 42, long after we’d given up the notion that he could conceivably still win one. Blame Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy for giving us the false impression that it’s just so damn easy. On the other hand, Lucas Glover won a major. So did Shaun Micheel. Michael Campbell. Ben Curtis. Rich Beem. Todd Hamilton.
So with that as context, why not Sergio Garcia?
Yes, why not? Two years ago, I could whip up a top-10 list of reasons why Sergio would never win a major and fulfill his once-great promise. It would have included his Masters meltdown and his “I’m not good enough” rant, plus his history of broken relationships with women that he used as an excuse for his disinterested play, on-course tantrums (he once threw a shoe at an official), and a sabbatical from golf and even the Ryder Cup.
Sergio is 32 now. Everyone matures at a different rate. Even Tiger seems mellower and slightly less combative since he’s become a father and is quickly closing in on 40. Sergio seems changed and re-energized after a few years of adversity, both real and imagined. Now my list of reasons Sergio won’t win a major is down to just one item: Rory McIlroy. Other than that, he’s got it all going on again the way we thought he would when he was that 19-year-old practicing his high-jump technique on the fairways at Medinah Country Club in the 1999 PGA Championship.
He won in Qatar earlier this year and has had a number of opportunities on the PGA Tour this year. He finished second in his last three events — the Travelers Championship in Hartford, the Open Championship at Hoylake and the Bridgestone Invitational last week in Akron. Note that he was beaten by McIlroy in those last two.
A younger Sergio might have been in a snit about that or held it against Rory the way he held it against Padraig Harrington for besting him at the Open at Carnoustie and the PGA at Oakland Hills. The new Sergio had a big smile for Rory, put his arm around him and seemed genuinely happy for him, as much as anyone can be happy for a competitor.
This new Sergio seems a lot like the really young Sergio. Very likable. These recent runner-up finishes aren’t haunting him at all, it seems. “I try to always look at the positive side,” Sergio said Wednesday before a PGA Championship practice round.
Stop the presses. Yes, Sergio, the guy who walked around under a black cloud that followed him around for a couple of years, really said that. And he meant it. It’s a new day.
“Obviously, I could have putted a little better Sunday (in Akron),” he continued. “I didn’t feel like I gave it away. I fought hard.”
The down years for Sergio were attributable mostly to two things: 1) Tiger Woods. Sergio was Tiger-ized just like everyone else in golf. At some point, practicing and trying to get better seemed pointless because Tiger was clearly that much better than everyone. Why bust your butt trying to beat a guy who was unbeatable when you could get the same results by practicing less and dating hot models? And, 2) putting. Sergio’s stroke broke down in his mid-20s and while his iron play and his ballstriking were nearly on a par with Tiger, his putting was light years away. Tiger made almost every clutch putt. Sergio didn’t make many clutch putts at all, and at some point began to have trouble finishing a stroke without some kind of mental flinch. If you want to hate life and everything in it, including yourself, play great golf tee to green and then putt like a baboon. It’s more than frustrating. It’s demoralizing. And it’s even more demoralizing when the guy you’re trying to beat, Tiger, looked for eight years like the best putter in the history of golf. If you can’t putt, you can’t play golf and for a while there before he finally relented and went to the claw grip, Sergio couldn’t putt.
And that works back through the rest of the bag, pressuring a player to hit it closer and closer, pressuring a player not to miss a green for fear of not getting it up and down because for that you have to make a par putt. Bad putting is a ticket to misery.
Well, Tiger has been out of the major picture for six years. It may be Rory’s turn to go on a run or it may not. We saw how quickly Rory got derailed by fame and fortune and the attention last year.
Asked to compare Tiger with Rory, Sergio said, “When they are both at their best, it seems like Rory is less afraid of hitting driver. When he’s hitting it as well as he’s hitting it now, he’s hitting it very far and quit straight. So obviously it makes a lot of holes a lot easier. Where most guys are hitting 7-iron, he’s hitting wedge. So it’s a little bit of an advantage.”
He doesn’t feel like he walked out of one buzz saw, Tiger, and into another, Rory. “I wouldn’t say bad timing, if somebody else is playing better than you, there’s nothing you can do. The only thing I can do is try to play the best I can. If somebody else plays better, the only thing I can do is congratulate him and move on.”
The way I hear him say it, Sergio isn’t conceding anything. Not like that “I’m not good enough” speech he gave at the 2012 Masters. He believes he is good enough now but is smart enough to recognize a talent like Rory and the potential that comes with it.
The putter? Sergio has never putted better. He’s taken to the claw grip and is, pardon the pun, rolling with it. He ranks 15th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained, is No. 1 in scoring average and ranks No. 1 in putts made from 10 to 15 feet. He’s fourth in scrambling and 18th in fewest putts per tournament. His least favorable putting stat is putts from three to five feet, where he ranks 76th after making 51 of 58 attempts.
There’s no stat for putting under pressure or putting on the back nine on Sunday but he’s got the fundamentals now. He putts well enough to win a major and, therefore, he is likely going to win a major. Add that to his new maturity and a better attitude and this could be a good decade for Sergio, finally. Asked if he’s ever seen a psychiatrist, Sergio answered, “Should I?” And then he laughed. A few years ago, he might have got up and walked out.
Sergio was also asked if he’s playing well because he’s happy or vice versa? He said it was a bit of both. “So many things happen in your life and in golf where you feel maybe you should have gotten something better but why look at it that way?” Sergio said. “Just enjoy the good moments as much as possible. I’m really exited about the way I’m playing and looking at it that way has probably helped me.”
It’s a start. He’s only 32. Maybe there still isn’t plenty of time but as Hogan and Mickelson proved, there’s time enough.