Sergio Welcomes Return to Medinah

By Associated PressAugust 13, 2006, 4:00 pm
2006 PGA ChampionshipThe jog turned into a sprint as Sergio Garcia took off down the 16th fairway at Medinah to follow the flight of a six-iron gouged from the base of a tree. It was the signature shot of a PGA Championship that held great promise for the future of golf.
Garcia was 19, a freckled-face kid from Spain in hot pursuit of Tiger Woods.
Sergio Garcia
Sergio Garcia is happy to be back at Medinah, site of his breakout performance seven years ago.
That was seven years ago.
Now turn back the calendar one month to find Garcia dressed head-to-toe in cream yellow at the British Open, still chasing Woods, still trying to win his first major championship.
The PGA Championship returns to Medinah for the final major of the year, a reminder for the 26-year-old Garcia of how close he came to taking down Woods, and how far he still has to go.
'I'm looking forward to seeing my tree,' Garcia said with a smile earlier this year. 'It's probably halfway down with a big hole in it.'
Indeed, the landscape in golf didn't turn out as most people imagined.
Woods still rules the game, picking up his 11th major at Royal Liverpool, then his 50th career PGA Tour victory at the Buick Open. But his stiffest challenge comes from guys his age, if not older.
The youth movement in golf has been idle.
Only seven players in their 20s are ranked among the top 50 in the world. Even more glaring is that none is a U.S. citizen; the highest-ranked young American is 26-year-old Lucas Glover, who checks in at No. 51. His only PGA Tour victory came last year when he holed out from a bunker on the final hole at Disney.
The lone major from the kiddie corps among that top 50 was delivered by 29-year-old Geoff Ogilvy of Australia, a U.S. Open title handed to him at Winged Foot when Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson made double bogey on the last hole.
Other than Garcia, no one else currently in their 20s has come remotely close to winning a major.
A few months before Woods won at Medinah, Luke Donald of England captured the NCAA title at Northwestern. Seven years later, he has played on one Ryder Cup team and has two PGA Tour victories, one of those a rain-shortened event held opposite the Tour Championship.
Three months after Medinah, an 18-year-old amateur named Aaron Baddeley won the Australian Open by holding off Montgomerie and Greg Norman at Royal Sydney. He won his first PGA Tour event earlier this year at Hilton Head.
The rising star in college in 1999 was Charles Howell III, who won the NCAA title that next summer and broke Woods' scoring record. Howell's goal is to be No. 1, but he still is searching for his second PGA Tour victory.
Adam Scott is the highest-ranked player in his 20s at No. 6, and he won The Players Championship two years at age 23. But his tie for eighth last month at Hoylake was his best finish in a major.
About the only thing that hasn't changed is Garcia leading the charge, such as it is.
Garcia is 0-for-29 in the majors as a pro, although he has 11 finishes in the top 10 and gave himself three good chances at winning. Woods beat him all three times, at Medinah, Bethpage Black ('02 U.S. Open) and last month at Royal Liverpool.
'Sergio hasn't done it yet, and I'm sure he will soon,' Woods said.
Those words ring hollow to Garcia, who already has retooled his swing and now is struggling with his putter. It is hard to believe seven years have gone by since he sprinted up the 16th fairway at Medinah, doing a scissors kick to leap and glimpse at the elevated green, patting his chest in mock relief.
Has he lived up to his potential? Or has the excellence of Woods created big expectations of those behind him?
'I would have loved to do more than I've done,' Garcia said. 'But it depends who you compare me with. If you compare me with Tiger, that is something out of the ordinary; of course, my career doesn't seem that great. But if you compare me with the other 25-year-old, 26-year-old players, I'm sure pretty much all of them would love to have a career like the one I have.'
Howell, Scott and other young players have used the same gauge. Measure them on their own, and they are doing fine. Stack them up against Woods, and it's not a fair fight.
Woods remains the only player to qualify for the Tour Championship using only sponsor exemptions. He was the youngest Masters champion (21) and the youngest to complete the career Grand Slam (24). When he won his 50th title at the Buick Open, he was the youngest (30) to reach that milestone by three years.
Even so, there is a noticeable lack of young major champions.
Nine players in the 1960s won majors when they were in their 20s, a list that included Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. There were nine major champions in their 20s during the 1970s, 10 during the 1980s and six during the 1990s.
There have been only four major champions in their 20s more than halfway through this decade - Woods, Ogilvy, Ben Curtis and David Duval. Curtis was 26 when he won the 2003 British Open, making him the first player younger than Woods to win a major since Woods turned pro in 1996.
'There's a lot of pressure out here, and Tiger was able to handle it so great,' Chris DiMarco said. 'There's been a few guys since then, but for the most part, it just takes a while to get your juices going. They used to say your early 30s were the years; now they're saying your early 40s are when the guys are having their best years.'
Woods has been a pied piper at times.
He played practice rounds with Garcia and Baddeley. He took Howell under his wing at the Presidents Cup in South Africa (they were 2-2 in team matches), and he has been spending more practice time with 24-year-old Sean O'Hair, the rookie of the year in 2005 who has struggled this season.
'We have young players out here,' Woods said. 'Right now, we have a Spaniard in Sergio, an Aussie in Adam, a South African in Trevor (Immelman). It's a global sport more so than any other time.'
More than anything, it's tough to win at any age.
DiMarco's observation rings true to a point. While guys in their 20s are not challenging in the majors, neither are the older players. Vijay Singh is the only one in his 40s to have won a major this decade.
'Sometimes people might think it's a lot easier than what it looks,' Garcia said. 'Everybody can play out there. It doesn't matter how old you are, how good you might be, what you've done in the past. Everybody is trying as hard as they can, and it shows.'
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