Feb 6, 2017: Someone once talked about Greg Norman being a good putter on Sundays at tournaments. The Merry Mex, Lee Trevino interrupted him and asked “Yeah, but at what time on Sunday?”
Until his wins at the Open Championship, and long after that – Norman was considered the unluckiest golfer in the history of the game for losing playoffs in all four majors – sometimes for his own bad decisions and at other times it seemed as if the golfing gods were dead against him. In the modern context of the game, time hasn’t been kind to Sergio Garcia.
It is said, that when Sergio went to bed every night he would recite Seve Ballesteros’s winning speech at the Open Championship. In the run up to his first professional start at the Open held at Carnoustie in 1999, he shot the lowest score by an amateur at the Masters before heading over to Carnoustie. Memories of his 89,83 start are fresh as a sobbing Garcia hid in his mother’s arms – it was the beginning of a decade long of heartbreaks.
Growing up in Madrid, Sergio was a star – with his laid off swing he created lag not seen since the days of Messrs Ben Hogan and company on the way to some astounding ball-striking. Even today, when he hits a clean iron close to the flag it is akin to a rifle going off if you listen carefully. If you continue watching, the ball hops, skips and jumps all over the dance floor getting closer to the flag with every jig.
Then there was the putting – his friends back home would tell him to pick it up from fifteen feet such was his reputation. Who else had the cajones to take on the big cat Tiger Woods himself come the PGA Championship in 1999?
This was the future of golf supposed to be playing out – Garcia and Woods just like Nicklaus and Palmer or Hogan and Sam Snead before them. The rivalry would push the game’s stock through the roof on an international stage. Come the 16th hole, Garcia pushed his drive into the base of one of Medinah Country Club’s numerous trees.
He opened the face of his six-iron, eyes closed and with Gary Mccord’s eternal warning “You small children, don’t watch this” slashed it onto the green to announce his arrival on the world stage. The media went ballistic describing his scissor-kick and pundits nodded in approval – cajones.
Woods may have won by a solitary stroke, but the world was convinced of this Spanish genius. He ticked the right boxes, and was like his countrymen before him, a Ryder Cup giant. Of course, all this does nothing for winning major championships. Just think of Colin Montgomerie and his record – nothing in the big four.
As time went on, the burden of expectation weighed heavily on Sergio. When he first went to Augusta, he said he was so excited he couldn’t sleep – for him Bobby Jones’s slice of heaven was paradise on earth. Today he says he doesn’t like the course setup despite shooting scores in the 60s regularly.
By 2007, Tiger Woods was slowing down. It gave a host of golfers the opportunities they needed to scrap the bottom of the major barrel. Cut to Carnoustie – Garcia opened with a first day 65 and kept the momentum going with rounds of 71 and 68 come Sunday.
On days of major championships, the line to the locker bathroom is longer. The tension in the air is palpable. Sergio held on to a wildly swinging leaderboard shooting a closing 67 as his nearest competitor Padraig Harrington opened up a barrage of birdies and an eagle to keep the momentum going.
At the 18th, both had chances to win it outright – Harrington hit it in the famous Barry Burn twice while Garcia left himself with a 10 footer for the win. Slashing it all over, the two ended up in a four-hole aggregate playoff which Sergio did nothing wrong except a bogey on the 1st which left Harrington a winner by one.
Once again, Harrington was the beneficiary of another major at the 2008 PGA Championship when Sergio held the lead for most of Sunday before hitting it in the water on 16, failing to match his rival’s putts.
Where was the Sergio we knew? Wasn’t he supposed to win majors by the dozen? By now he said he was at peace with himself, knowing he could never win a major championship. Of course one can put that down to the psychology sportspeople live with everyday of their lives. Playing mind games with oneself is part of the packaged deal of professional golf – anything to get the mind to work the way you want it to.
In 2014, the scene had changed drastically. Tiger and Padraig were nowhere to be seen. Phil Mickelson had broken through on the other side of the Atlantic for an improbable win for the ages at the Open the year before – golf’s guard was changing giving way to a new generation of stars in an era of never before seen equipment and scores.
There was however one constant – Sergio Garcia.
At Royal Liverpool, he begged the ball to be right all week. “Please be good, please!” You could hear it in his voice how much he wanted it a good fifteen years later.
Rory Mcllroy may have beaten him by two strokes but the disappointment in Sergio’s eyes told us one thing – the fire never went out. It was there all this while waiting, and lurking like the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.
Would he be able to find his way out of the Labyrinth eventually? Would the string left behind by Theseus be enough to counter the demons in his head if any?
Last week, Sergio added to his ever growing pile of wins on the European, Asian and US tours with a wire-to-wire win in Dubai to spark the ever familiar conversation of the best player without a major. His contemporaries in Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson among others all have a major to their name. Undoubtedly, he tops the list given any generation.
Till last year, the Spaniard has continued clocking top five finishes at the majors for a grand total of 12 top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes. Poetic justice may or may not be served come the end of his career, but it is tempting to predict that he isn’t going down with a fight before he hangs his spikes for the greener pastures of Crans-Montana.