HUMBLE, Texas – What’s the proper shelf life on a nickname?
It’s an irrelevant question for many of the best names in golf: The King, Tiger, Shark, Golden Bear and Black Knight. All of those endure the test of time.
But some are more ephemeral, their fit wearing out like an overused t-shirt as the years pass.
Take, for example, Sergio Garcia. When he burst onto the scene at age 19, the Spaniard was playfully dubbed El Niño, a nickname that has followed him throughout his career. But the player teeing it up this week at the Shell Houston Open has very little Niño about him.
Garcia turned 35 in January, and he is in the midst of his 16th season on the PGA Tour. His baby-faced smile has been replaced by the grizzled shadow of a veteran, one who has already compiled a wildly successful career: eight wins in the U.S., 11 more in Europe and more than $37 million in PGA Tour earnings.
And yet ...
Despite ranking ninth on the all-time money list, Garcia continues to be dogged by the only thing missing from his otherwise stellar resume: a major championship. That fact won’t change this week in Houston, and based simply on the probabilities history won't be on Garcia's side next week at the Masters.
In fact, as he now sits closer to the Champions Tour than his famed frolic across the 16th fairway at Medinah, there’s reason to think that a major may never come his way.
But don’t expect Garcia to lose much sleep over what his credentials lack.
“If it comes down to me not winning any majors when I’m done with my golfing career, I’m not going to be sad,” Garcia said Tuesday. “It’s not the main thing. Obviously it’s something nice to have, and if I get it I’m not going to give it back, but that is not – it’s not the main thing in my life.”
His answer has roots in a sense of contentment that comes from playing some of your best golf while you plan a future with the love of your life. It also shows tinges of rationalization, the inevitable byproduct of numerous close calls without tasting triumph.
But Garcia has never been one to shy away from an opinion, whether assessing the role the golf gods played in his playoff loss at the 2007 Open Championship or evaluating his newfound happiness both on and off the course alongside fiancée Katharina Boehm.
Too often players offer canned responses to tough questions, or no responses at all. Garcia, to his credit, fielded various queries with candor, displaying the poise of a veteran who has found a fundamental sense of peace.
“I think as you get older, as you get more and more experience, you realize the important things in life,” he said. “I’m not saying that winning a major is not important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. I think there’s a lot of other things that you can do that can not only fulfill you as a player, but also as a person.”
Make no mistake, the major odds no longer are in Garcia’s favor. While Bubba Watson won the Masters last year at age 35, less than a quarter of the total majors since 1960 have been won by players 36 or older. Garcia is now beyond the age at which Phil Mickelson ended his major drought at the 2004 Masters.
In order to claim a major, Garcia would need to overcome the old guard that has stood in his way since the turn of the century, but more importantly he would have to defeat the new wave of the game’s brightest stars, led by Rory McIlroy who kept him at bay last summer at Royal Liverpool.
Garcia is one of the longest-tenured members of the major championship bread line, but the mouths around him – those of Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day and others – are perhaps even hungrier.
It didn’t help matters that in his lone brush with contention this year, Garcia reverted back to his old ways. Leading by one with two holes to go at the Northern Trust Open, he finished bogey-bogey to miss a playoff by a shot.
Given weeks to reflect, Garcia has turned that close call into another positive, one upon which he hopes to build this week in Houston at an event he nearly won a year ago.
As for the rest of the year, and the four major chances that loom? It’s all a matter of perspective.
“As you go through life, and through moments not only on the golf course but outside and stuff,” he said, “you kind of realize the things that are really, really important in your life and the things that are important, but you can kind of go through without them.”
Garcia’s major may come next week. It may come next year, or it may not come at all.
Whatever the outcome, expect him to flash a smile. He is, after all, El Niño.