Sergio All Alone in Youth Pursuit of Tiger
That was the summer of '99 at the PGA Championship.
More than six years later, Garcia is still running after the world's No. 1 player and hasn't made up much ground. The latest opportunity came Sunday at Torrey Pines, where he played with Woods in the final group for the first time since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
He hooked his opening tee shot and made bogey. He blasted out over the lip of a fairway bunker and over the green at No. 2, making another bogey and sending Garcia to a 40 on the front nine. To his credit, Garcia hung around long enough to give himself a long eagle putt on the 18th hole to join the playoff at the Buick Invitational.
He wound up with a three-putt par and a 75.
There will be other chances, for no other reason than the 26-year-old Garcia is blessed with immense talent that should be enough to overcome a suspect putting stroke. But beating Woods when it counts -- and the 'Battle at Bighorn' doesn't -- remains a mental hurdle.
'What can you do?' Garcia said. 'I wanted to play well, there's no doubt about that. It's been a long week, a long trip from Abu Dhabi. I felt a little bit tired all week long, and unfortunately it caught up with me today. But that's all you can do, and go on to next week.'
That he failed to beat Woods from the final group is no disgrace.
Perhaps more alarming is that of players in their 20s, Garcia is one of the few making progress toward becoming a veritable star and one day dethroning Woods.
Only six players in their 20s have won at least two times on the PGA Tour, and three of those guys -- Ben Crane, Rory Sabbatini and Vaughn Taylor -- are a few months away from graduating to their 30s. For those who don't know much about Taylor, he is a sharp kid who hits it long and twice won the Reno-Tahoe Open opposite a World Golf Championship event.
Garcia has won six times on the PGA Tour, all of them on either strong courses (Westchester, Colonial) or against strong fields (Mercedes Championships, Byron Nelson Championship). His resume includes 10 victories overseas, and three appearances in the Ryder Cup before turning 25.
The only other young player in the elite category is Adam Scott, who won The Players Championship at 23 and has four trophies from the PGA Tour (although the tour doesn't recognize his 36-hole, playoff victory at Riviera).
What puts Garcia in a league of his own among young players is the majors. He has seven top 10s in the majors, and had a shot to win on the back nine in four of them. Scott, a 25-year-old from Australia, has one top 10 and only last year made the cut in all four majors for the first time.
Ben Curtis, for those keeping score, is the only player currently in his 20s to have won a major.
No doubt, it's getting harder to win on the PGA Tour with so much depth of talent, and with so many veterans hitting their stride in their late 30s and 40s, such as David Toms, Vijay Singh and Kenny Perry.
And it would be unfair to expect anyone to reach the bar set by Woods, who won 46 times and 10 majors in his 20s. Ditto for Phil Mickelson, who won 16 times in his 20s, or David Duval, who won 13 times and a major before turning 30. Those are special talents.
But the search continues for a young player who has the tools to challenge the best.
And while it might start with length, it sure doesn't end there.
Four weeks into the season -- hardly a good gauge -- seven of the top 10 players in driving distance are in their 20s, starting with Bubba Watson who is getting shamelessly promoted as the future of golf. Watson indeed might go on to do great things in the next few years, but if length was all that mattered, he probably would have reached the big leagues before he was 27.
Woods says the future of golf lies with players who are bigger, stronger and more athletic -- guys built like linebackers who can generate enormous club speed and have been taught the technical side of golf from an early age.
But a few minutes later, he was asked the difference between a great swing and a great game.
'You've got to have the guts to get it done,' Woods said. 'You can have a picture-perfect swing. You can put the club in every position. But can you pull the trigger when you have a 3-iron over water on the last hole when you need to make 3? Can you do it? That's when it comes down to, 'What do you have inside?'
'That's something you can't teach.'
Woods made that observation on the eve of the Buick Invitational. Five days later, Garcia had more than 3-iron over the water to the 18th green on the South Course. He needed a 3. And he hit the green.
He just didn't make the putt.
The problem Woods sees with most young players is they have one shot, one swing, one trajectory. He noted that golf balls don't allow for as much movement anymore, but they can still be shaped.
'I don't see the kids trying that,' he said.
One of the young players not cut out of the same cloth might be Ryan Moore, who doesn't have a coach, psychologist or nutritionist. He became the first player since Woods to earn his card without going to Q-school, although he has started this year by missing his first two cuts.
Meanwhile, the search goes on.
And while he had a Sunday to forget, it starts with Garcia.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord
Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.
On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...
I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.
Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.
The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner
On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...
After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.
Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.
The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray
On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...
The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.
Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.
That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard
On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...
The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell
Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder
LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.
“I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”
By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.
“When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.
Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.
“I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.
Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle
LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.
It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.
Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.
He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.
“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”
What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.
In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.
For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”
From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.
“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”
There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.
“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.
A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.
That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.
Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.
“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”
It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.
Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.
“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”
It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.
That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.
“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”
Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.
Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'
LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.
Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.
Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.
“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”
Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.
Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.
“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”