BETHESDA, Md. — In the U.S. Open Consolation Prize Championship, Sergio Garcia is perfectly placed to challenge for top honors. Garcia is tucked in at two under par, the ideal 36-hole total at the toughest test of the year.
Unfortunately for Garcia, this isn’t a normal U.S. Open. Only one person has realized that the rain has softened the course into the Kemper Open. Rory McIlroy even tossed one in the water at 18 just to keep the door slightly ajar over the weekend. However, Garcia showed little sign that he would be the one to kick it open before McIlroy slams it shut in everyone’s face. The Spaniard sounded like he had already given up the fight.
“It will be great for him to win,” he said. “He’s a wonderful player and a nice kid. Hopefully he’ll be able to do it.”
Towel duly chucked in, then.
As for Garcia himself, it was more self-loathing and grumpy impatience.
“Am I happy? Yeah, obviously I am,” he said.
You’d never have noticed judging by his ho-hum voice and downtrodden body language.
“I don’t think I played very good today, so I think even par, the way I played, was a good round,” Garcia said. “If you’re hitting it all over the shop, it’s quite difficult to give yourself chances. You’re kind of fighting to make pars.”
Never mind that in 12 U.S. Opens, Garcia has never been better placed after two rounds. What the world would love to see is Garcia playing golf with a smile on his face the way he does when he’s playing soccer. Having to chase someone that is so far in the lead, does that change Garcia’s plan of attack for the weekend?
“Not at all. I have bigger worries than Rory McIlroy,” he said.
And they are mostly between his ears. Garcia has been sporting a new haircut at Congressional. It’s not severe enough to be a Last of the Mohicans Mohawk; it’s more of a Fauxhawk. But it’s not what’s on the outside of Garcia’s head that causes all his trouble; it’s what’s going on inside.
Just two years ago, Garcia was ranked No. 2 in the world. He’s now outside the magic top 50, languishing at No. 76 between Frenchmen Gregory Bourdy and Raphael Jacquelin. Garcia even had to grind through 36 holes of qualifying in Memphis just to make it to Congressional. And even then he had to fight for one of the last four spots in a seven-man playoff. Nothing is simple these days for the once freewheelin’ Garcia.
He was supposed to be the new Seve Ballesteros when he exploded onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 1999 and went head-to-head with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship. But Garcia is now 31 years old and 0 for 50 in the majors. So it’s just typical of his rotten luck that when he hangs around par after 36 holes of a U.S. Open, as you’re supposed to, McIlroy chooses this moment to channel the spirit of Tiger Woods, Pebble Beach 2000 version.
Garcia was grumpy on Thursday evening after missing a tiddler of a putt to bogey the 18th. He missed another short putt at his first hole (the 10th) in the second round. This time it was a birdie that got away. Watching Garcia stand over a four-footer is like seeing a child playing with a balloon. Everyone’s nerves are shredded waiting for it to go “pop!” Garcia has become a long-putt specialist. There’s no pressure. No balloon. He holed a 40-footer at the 13th to get to two under par and did it again at the 16th to save par after playing like a weekend hacker. He hooked his drive into the trees, thrashed it farther up the left rough, slashed a wedge onto the green and willed the ball to drop into the hole just as it was running out of gas. Seve would have been proud.
American crowds used to wage a war of wisecracks with Garcia. He all but went looking for a fight in New York at the 2002 U.S. Open when hecklers counted out his waggles before he hit each shot. But the Washington crowd was doing its best to inspire him back to his brilliant best. He was applauded all along the bridge and walkway from the 18th green to the 1st tee. He had thrilled them with a Seve-like smash from under a tree to the front of the green. His ball looked destined for the water. Somehow it stopped on the downslope. He chipped. He putted. He saved par. He smiled.
Or maybe it was a grimace.