Garcia Hopes Putting Leads to Big Year

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04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Sergio Garcia stuck two white tees into the practice green at Kapalua and started his drill, one stroke after another with the putter sliding between the two pegs.
 
Garcia noticed watching videotape that when the pressure was on, he rarely hit the putts squarely on the blade. That might explain his frustration over 2005, when he felt as though he hit the ball well enough to win just about every week, yet had only one trophy'the Booz Allen Classic'to show for it.
 
One win was the least I could get the way I played last year, he said.
 
Sergio Garcia
Segio Garcia ranked 196th on the PGA Tour in putting in 2005.
The short game is the only thing stopping him from a big year.
 
Garcia hopes to change that starting Thursday, when he joins 27 others in a winners-only field at the Mercedes Championships that officially starts the PGA Tour season. Its the first of 48 events on the PGA Tour schedule.
 
Hes one of only three players from the top 10 in the world ranking at Kapalua, largely because Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen decided to stay home and wait a few weeks before making their 06 debut.
 
And the 25-year-old Spaniard certainly has the experience to win on the Plantation Course, having won four years ago by making a 10-foot birdie putt in a playoff to beat David Toms.
 
That image of Garcia rolling a putt that disappears into the cup seems like a rarity now.
 
He hit the ball so well in 2005 that he led the tour in greens hit in regulation at 71.8 percent. Length has never been a problem, and Garcia averaged more than 300 yards to rank 10th.
 
But the statistic that stands out is putting -- 196th out of 202 players.
 
Garcia is sensitive when talking about the flat stick, because he realizes how much it cost him last year. Ask him about what needs to improve in his game, and he broadly mentions his short game. But he later said that his chipping is vastly improved, and no longer a problem.
 
The putting, he said, is the one that has been, you know, giving me a headache.
 
A putting tip from Adam Scott carried him to victory at Congressional the week before the U.S. Open, but nothing is more glaring than his collapse at the Wachovia Championship, where Garcia tied a PGA Tour record by blowing a six-shot lead in the final round. The only other player to do that was Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters.
 
Garcia started that round with a three-putt, missing his par from 30 inches. He was the first player to drop out of a three-man playoff when he three-putted the first extra hole.
 
Thats where the tape comes in.
 
Garcia said it was made by a friend at Sky Sports in Britain, and it showed that he struck his putts slightly off-center in big moments. Thats when he went to the two tees, for instant feedback.
 
As soon as you clip of the tees, you know youve done it wrong, he said. I feel like Im finally getting over it. My strike is better, Im hitting the ball more consistently in the middle of the club face. Ive just got to go out there and by seeing these good putts, believe Im going to make them.
 
Stuart Appleby is the two-time defending champion at Kapalua, and he certainly had no trouble on the greens. The putting surfaces have been redone with a strain of grass that allows it to grow taller so it can be cut shorter, leaving greens that have been smoother.
 
Applebys only victory last year came at Kapalua. He rushed home to Australia where his American-born wife gave birth to a daughter, Ella.
 
A victory would allow Appleby to join Gene Littler (1955-57) as the only players to win this tournament three straight times. It was called the Tournament of Championship when Littler won three straight in Las Vegas.
 
I know what I have to do, Appleby said. I know how to play, I know what sort of golf is required to win here. Having Phil and Tiger not here, Retief, is a good thing for me. Maybe theyre a little scared.
 
Garcia is scared of no one. He simply needs to make putts.
 
Despite only one victory last year, he would hardly call 2005 a failure. He had eight finishes in the top 10, gave himself fleeting hope at the U.S. Open, a tie for fifth at the British Open.
 
And hes back at Kapalua, one of only eight players who returned from last years winners-only field.
 
Its more frustrating to play badly, like I did in 2003 when I was going through the swing changes, or maybe 2000, said Garcia, alluding to the only two seasons he failed to win since joining the PGA Tour. That to me is more frustrating than playing really well and maybe only winning once or twice, because at least you see youre giving yourself chances.
 
The most horrendous thing is seeing that you dont have a chance.
 
Garcia is expecting to have several opportunities this year. The key is to do something with them.
 
If I can manage the short game, he said, then it could be a huge year.
 
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