An Uneasy Return

By Randall MellJune 16, 2009, 4:00 pm
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2009 U.S. OpenFARMINGDALE, N.Y. ' Sergio Garcia can make you shake your head nearly every time you watch him play.
Sometimes, its because his arsenal of shots is equaled only by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Other times, its because you want to take him over your knee and spank him.
Garcia, 29, returns this week to the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a site that reminds us what golf fans adore and loathe about the Spaniard.
Major championship pressure has a way of drawing out his best and worst qualities.
In Garcias 39 major championship starts as a pro, nine times he has finished among the top five, including three second-places finishes and two thirds.
Its in those closest flirtations with victory that he has revealed the most about his extraordinary gifts and his maddening temperament and the way they are inextricably linked.
Thats the thing. As much as we may admire Garcias ability and tolerate his moods, its possible one is lost without the other.
If you could surgically separate the feisty, callow elements of his nature, would he be the same player?
The very defiance that can turn us off may be what turns his game on, what drives him to be his best.
Granted, spitting in the cup as Garcia did at the 13th green at the CA Championship at Doral two years ago wont make him play better, nor will throwing a shoe toward the gallery after a bad shot, the way he did in the World Match Play Championship one year.
Blaming his failure on a cosmic conspiracy of bad breaks the way he did at the British Open in 2007 wont help him win, neither will blaming Augusta Nationals setup the way he did this year, but the internal wiring that causes all this dysfunction may be integral to what drives him to be one of the top four players in the world.
Yeah, its no excuse for indulging immature impulses, because the best sportsman know how to turn the combustion off, but theres an undeniable link between Garcias temperament and his confidence.
When he fully controls it, we will no longer wonder if Tour officials are tempted to send him to bed without dinner after he signs his scorecard.
Ive always said it, I am the way I am, Garcia said Tuesday morning before heading out to play a practice round at Bethpage Black. But I think thats what people love about me, because what you see is what you get, unfortunately, both in a good way and a bad way.
I think as you get older, you learn from things youve done in the past, and you try to mature from those things. But like I said before, I am the way I am, and I can change a little bit, but not too much, because then I wouldnt be myself.
New Yorkers saw Garcia at his most defiant in the second round at Bethpage seven years ago, when he barely caught himself before fully extending a single finger in a salute to the gallery. The stunted gesture, an answer to hecklers counting his re-grips and waggles, was made worse by his post-round complaints about the stupid comments fans were making. He further compounded his problems complaining that the U.S. Golf Association favored Woods in its setup.
In that one dark Friday at Bethpage, Garcia instantly vaulted into an elite class of sports figures New Yorkers love to loathe.
Overnight, Garcia elevated himself to the ranks of former New York Knicks coach Pat Riley, former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
Rileys act of defiance came in his return to Madison Square Garden as coach of the Miami Heat, when he thrust his jaw out and gestured for Knicks fans to boo him some more in the pre-game introductions.
Miller loved to taunt Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden, where he thrived.
Schilling, a thorn in the side of Yankees fans, will always be remembered for his answer when asked what he thought of the mystique and aura of Yankee Stadium. Mystique and Aura? Those are dancers at a nightclub, he said.
Heres the thing about Garcias last appearance at Bethpage Black. He played himself into contention with New Yorkers practically willing his defeat. He played through the heckling while playing himself into the final pairing with Woods. Yes, he faded to fourth with Woods winning, but it was a spirited effort given the forces working against him.
Garcia winning at Bethpage Black seems like too much to ask, given what Garcias up against here with the fans, given the heartbreak he says he endured in the breakup with his former girlfriend, Greg Normans daughter, Morgan Leigh, and particularly given the sluggish state of his game and putter, but would there be a better site to prove what his defiant spirit means to his game?
To win, Garcia will probably have to beat Woods in top form.
A Garcia victory at Bethpage might remind us all of a time we saw so much charm in Garcias defiance.
Ten years ago, he burst into major championship golf so differently.
Garcia first won us over on a major championship stage at the PGA Championship at Medinah.
Just 19 then, he made us shake our heads in that Sunday final round when he holed a birdie putt on the 13th green, then looked back at the tee box and thrust a fist at Woods, as if to issue a challenge. Garcia got our heads moving again when he was along the 16th fairway, where he was carving a shot around the base of a tree, then chasing it up the fairway, making a scissor-kick jump to see where it came to rest.
When Garcia hits shot like that, you want to call your golf buddies to see if they were watching.
He can make pros want to do the same.
After playing with Garcia in the first two rounds of the Honda Classic last year, Paul Goydos left shaking his head.
Sergios shot making amazed me, Goydos said. His go-to shot is the one he needs to hit now. Tiger Woods is the only other player like that.
Garcia will need all his shots this week, and hell need his feisty temperament, too. He doesnt have a chance without his defiant nature, a quality you would think New Yorkers, more than anyone, would appreciate.
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