We all probably remember it as if it was yesterday.
A 19-year old Sergio Garcia battled toe-to-toe with a 23-year old Tiger Woods in the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. Woods, who would capture the second of his 14 majors that day, had already established himself as the game’s best player by then.
However, the ebullient Spanish teenage upstart arguably stole the show that day with his guile, charm and fearlessness. After all, who can forget the iconic jump as Garcia hit the amazing eyes-closed recovery shot from behind the tree on the 16th hole?
Garcia finished second that day, a mere one stroke behind a visibly relieved Woods. Still, it seemed like a captivating rivalry for the next millennium was born.
Of course, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Yes, Garcia has been a fine player, winning 24 professional tournaments and establishing himself as one of the great Ryder Cup players of his generation. However, he has yet to score that breakthrough major victory, and has encountered criticism over numerous matters through the years.
During the 2002 U.S. Open, in which he played the final round with Woods, Garcia’s annoying habit of countless pre-shot “waggles” was heavily criticized. It has also long been known that Garcia is not a huge fan of Woods. Yet, instead of diffusing possible awkward situations gracefully, Garcia has been shall we say … frank with his responses.
Regarding the “waggles,” he noted that his swing worked for him and asked why he should change. With respect to Woods, Garcia noted earlier this year: “I’m not going to lie … He’s not the nicest guy on tour.”
That may be so, but such transparency has not done Garcia any favors. Nor has his tendency to not own his mishaps.
More recently, Garcia displayed an even greater diarrhea of the mouth, saying he would “serve fried chicken” to Woods at a European Tour players’ dinner. The strange comment was seen as not only sour grapes towards longtime nemesis Woods, but racially insensitive as well.
In short, the likable Garcia we saw at Medinah is something of a shadow of his former self. The fact that he has yet to score that breakthrough major victory has, fairly or not, only fueled the belief that many have of Garcia as something of a petulant underachiever with a propensity to crack under pressure.
Now, that said, it must be acknowledged that whatever you think of Garcia personally, he is one of the best ball-strikers of his generation — a modern Tom Watson, if you will. His record in The Open Championship, in which swirling, ever-changing wind places a premium on ball-striking, would indicate this as Garcia boasts six top-10 finishes.
Where Garcia is hit or miss (except seemingly in the Ryder Cup) is with the flat stick. While his elite ball-striking often mean he contends in majors, he is unable to close the deal because of the putter. To be clear, it is not the ‘yips’ exactly, but the inability to sink medium-range putts under pressure, like the 10-footer to win at Carnoustie, have bit Garcia.
However, if the Spaniard is going to break through, it could be this weekend.
At 33, he has entered his prime golfing years. Plus, the Open Championship is the major that clearly sets up the best for Garcia.
Of course, the greatest hurdle facing him is rarely the course, but rather himself. He has long shown the ability to win majors, but will he finally have the self-assurance to close the deal?
If so, we might just have the pleasure of once again seeing that ebullient teenager from Medinah so many years ago.