Garcia still trying to solve game's toughest riddle

By Damon HackApril 1, 2016, 1:00 pm

One of the last shared moments of joy between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods happened nearly 17 years ago in a Chicago suburb.

Garcia had just scissor-kicked his way into our golf consciousness, pushing Woods in a way that few have, before falling short in the PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club by one shot.

The 23-year-old Woods – his shoulders slumped after the weight of winning his second major – spotted the 19-year-old Garcia off the 18th green and embraced his young pursuer.

“Great playing, Sergio,” Woods said. “Great playing.”

Garcia thanked him, patted Woods on the shoulder, and the golf cognoscenti started fitting Garcia for a closet full of green jackets.

One of the lone voices of caution came from one of Garcia’s boyhood heroes, someone who knew the grind of championship golf – and life – as well as anyone.

“I think when you’re a 19-year-old, you have no fear, have you?” Jose Maria Olazabal said at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, days after that PGA. “You don’t have anything to lose, nothing to lose. There is no pressure at all. No responsibility. And I think he’s taken advantage of it.”

Earlier that spring, Olazabal had found the resolve to win a second Masters, overcoming a back injury that was originally diagnosed as a foot ailment. He’d spent part of the mid-1990s sitting in a dark room, unable to walk, let alone play golf.

Pressure? Olazabal had lived it. He knew that a teenager simply could not fathom it, not yet.

“The picture might change in a couple years time – three or four years time [when] everybody will expect him to win every tournament that he tees off,” Olazabal said then. “Sometimes you don’t feel comfortable in that situation.”

Olazabal’s words are prophetic now. Garcia's trophy case is still lacking a major.

He has been a central figure in golf for nearly two decades  as a foil to Woods, as a brilliant Ryder Cup performer, as a Players champion  and yet the game's most important threshold continues to elude him.

One of the game’s most accurate players at his height – Garcia led the PGA Tour in greens in regulation in 2005 and was fourth in 2004  he has played in 69 majors, logged 20 top-10s, 10 top-5s and four runner-up finishes, but somehow has failed to solve the riddle of the game's most important examinations.

At the dawn of another major championship season, the 36-year-old Garcia has been overshadowed by an influx of 20-somethings in a generation he was once predicted to thrive in.

His two most immediate peers have broken through in majors (Adam Scott, Justin Rose). Long-hitting savants have (Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera). Precision players have (Zach Johnson, Jason Dufner). Out-of-the-blue winners of every pedigree have (Darren Clarke, Todd Hamilton, Y.E. Yang).

Tormented by Woods in his formative years and by Padraig Harrington in his prime, Garcia arrives to Augusta National Golf Club for the 80th Masters with little to no fanfare, while Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day have combined to win five of the last six majors.

"I just think his time has passed," Lanny Wadkins, the World Golf Hall of Fame member and 1977 PGA champion, says now. "When you stop and think of the things he's gone through, I think he has some demons. Big-time winners don't struggle taking the club away. From a ball-striking perspective, I think he's very one-dimensional. Sergio's putting stroke looks better, but it doesn't look as solid as a guy like Adam Scott. There's still a little 'wish' in there."

Hank Haney coached Woods from 2004 to 2010, including at the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake when Woods was paired with Garcia in the final group. The anticipation that Sunday was thick, but two quick bogeys in the opening three holes removed Garcia from the fight. Woods shot 67, Garcia 73, and Woods won his third claret jug.

"To win a major, usually you have to make two putts on the last three holes, and that was hard for Sergio for a long time," Haney says. "He's better with the claw [putting grip], but opportunities passed before his putting improved. He would need the week of his life, with a host of other players being off their games and a big list of players not having the week of their lives. That makes the odds very low that, despite Sergio's greatness, he will ever win a major. They only play four a year."

The “best player without a major” conversation is one of golf's most unrelenting. Tom Kite endured it. Corey Pavin. Adam Scott. (At the 2010 Players, Scott called himself and Garcia, a good friend, "the young guys with gray hair," referring to their pursuit of a major, which Scott finally won at the 2013 Masters).

Phil Mickelson, burdened by both his PGA Tour win as an Arizona State junior and the endless comparisons with Woods, would joust with the media over the long-time gap in his resume before breaking the seal at the 2004 Masters.

Mickelson learned to embrace the challenge of competing in the Woods era. Garcia has bristled, spending nearly half his life spinning the dial on an unopened lock.

In the midst of a slump in 2010, Garcia's peers came to his defense. Lee Westwood, himself without a major, said Garcia only needed a boost in confidence. Garcia's countryman, Alvaro Quiros, a six-time European Tour winner, said the comparisons of Garcia and Woods were unfair and would have humbled the strongest of men.

"We are speaking of the greatest player of the world in history, Tiger," Quiros said then. "This is a very, very heavy stone."

It’s not that Garcia didn’t try and carry it, but he often added unnecessary weight.

At the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he fought a vicious case of waggling and re-gripping, he complained that rules officials would have called play in the second round had Woods been in the rainstorm that pelted his tee time.

Garcia later left a note of apology in Woods’s locker. Paired in the final group, Woods shot 72, Garcia 74, and Woods won his eighth major.

Their frosty relationship reached its nadir on Saturday at the 2013 Players when Garcia said Woods distracted him by pulling a club from his bag from across the second fairway, causing the crowd to stir as Garcia swung.

Woods said later he was not surprised Garcia was complaining about something. Woods won the tournament, but the feud spilled over into the BMW PGA Championship more than a week later when Garcia attended the European Tour’s awards dinner and said he would invite Woods over for fried chicken, an off-color remark at best and more sinister at worst.

Once more, Garcia was apologizing.

The back and forth with Woods was more than a decade in the making, but his most confounding losses came to Harrington at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie and 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

Woods was far from contention in the former and out with injury in the latter.

Garcia’s coping mechanism at Carnoustie was to blame unseen forces.

“It’s funny how some guys hit the pin and go to a foot,” Garcia said then. “Mine hits the pin and goes 20 feet away. You know what’s the saddest thing about it? It’s not the first time. I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, not just the field.”

At the 2009 Masters, he said he didn’t like Augusta National, calling it unfair and tricky.

“I just come here, play golf and go home,” he said before apologizing through his management company two days later.

His nadir might have come at the 2012 Masters when Garcia seemed to wave the white flag after a Saturday 75.

“I’m not good enough,” he said in an interview with Spanish-speaking reporters. “I don’t have the thing I need to have. In any major.”

This self-defeating talk is heresy to Wadkins.

“You have to want to beat the best guy,” Wadkins says. “We all knew Jack Nicklaus was and still is the best to ever play. The best driver. The best putter. We all knew, but we all got him. Watson got him. Raymond [Floyd] got him. Johnny [Miller] got him. I got him. You have to want to take down the best. I don’t know if Sergio has that.”

If he had it for a time, it seems to have been whittled away by time and defeat. Garcia has been one of the game’s great enigmas, playing well enough in a victory at the Buick Classic in 2001 that Scott Hoch declared him as straight and long off the tee as Greg Norman in his prime.

He has been charitable, donating more than one million euros through his eponymous foundation for the disabled and disadvantaged.

Through the bulk of this reporter’s interactions, Garcia has been more than accommodating, one time answering interview questions after four straight rounds in a Players Championship he had no chance to win.

Few people have been more exciting to witness with a golf club or a microphone.

Sergio makes good copy.

But good luck in the majors has not been his, whether the blame is timing, the golf gods, or his own dark cloud.

“Sergio is a great player but so was Monty and Westwood and others that didn’t win a major,” says Haney, and the weight of his statement hits home.

The line of players who could have won majors goes around the block and then some.

And that carefree teenager racing up the 16th fairway at Medinah is gone.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.