This is going to sound like a terrible contradiction, but Sergio Garcia’s greatest strength has always been his biggest weakness: He says whatever is on his mind, at any time, to anyone, regardless of potential repercussions. It is this lack of filter that has made him so polarizing. It has also turned an endearing guy into one widely detested by the masses.
As it turns out, being the world’s most honest professional golfer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In the past, it’s this personality trait that has allowed Garcia to suggest that Tiger Woods would have received preferential treatment during a U.S. Open round that wasn’t delayed despite a downpour. It has let him condemn a higher power for conspiring against him when hitting the flagstick during an Open Championship playoff. It has forced him to blame Woods when crowd noise occurred before his swing at The Players Championship.
And it has ultimately turned an often petulant, underachieving golfer into this polarizing figure, simple because he’s always one thought process away from making an insolent or insular comment.
Never before, though – not in any of those previous situations – has Garcia’s greatest strength and biggest weakness gotten him into so much trouble. And rightfully so.
You know the story by now. During a European Tour gala on Tuesday, Golf Channel’s Steve Sands, serving as emcee, asked Garcia whether he’d invite Woods to dinner during the U.S. Open after their most recent public spat. He responded: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”
In the court of public opinion, where Garcia was already guilty until proven innocent for other, more innocuous comments, he was immediately and fittingly flogged for what can only be perceived as a racially motivated jab. The comment quickly recalled Fuzzy Zoeller’s own shot at Woods’ heritage prior to the 1997 Masters, for which he was similarly lambasted.
That didn’t stop Garcia from trying to wish it all away. He apologized, over and over. He begged for forgiveness. He said he’d call Woods soon and try to smooth things over, saying those apologies directly to his target.
None of it is going to make this story go away.
In the aftermath, the questions will come fast and, mostly, furious. Is Garcia a racist? Why would a non-racist person make a racially motivated joke? Did he even know it was racially motivated? If not, why choose that very comment at that very moment?
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Garcia said during a Wednesday news conference. “I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body. Unfortunately, I said it. I wish I didn’t do it, but the only thing I can do is say sorry.”
If we’ve learned anything about Garcia in the years since he quickly rose to prominence as a 19-year-old, exuberant, scissor-kicking phenom at the 1999 PGA Championship, where he lost to Woods, it’s that he tells the truth. Again, it’s his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.
When analyzing, examining and debating this latest headline-grabber from all angles, we should keep this information handy. Garcia likely invoked the fried chicken line because it was the first thing that popped into his mind – and he always says what’s on his mind. By the same token, he profusely apologized for the comment because he honestly and sincerely regrets it; though, it can be argued whether he more greatly regrets the racially charged insinuation itself or the maelstrom it has caused.
For his part, Woods did his best to defuse the situation.
“The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate,” he tweeted Wednesday. “I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.”
Those words are the social media equivalent to landing a right cross to Garcia’s chin for his comments, then helping him to his feet and tending to his wounds.
Others won’t be so kind.
Eleven years ago, Garcia came to the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black with a bad case of the waggles. The New York galleries were merciless toward him, yelling with gusto for him to hit the ball in a timely fashion. Much to his personality, Garcia told them what he thought of those comments, extending a middle finger toward the crowd on one occasion.
If he thought that was bad, just wait until this year’s edition of that event. Garcia will be heading to Merion Golf Club soon, just outside of Philadelphia, where – since we’re on the subject of stereotypes – fans have booed Santa Claus and assaulted athletes with batteries. Sure, each incident occurred years ago and the locals aren’t proud of the label, but New Yorkers yelling about waggles should have nothing on Philadelphians yelling about racially motivated comments.
As he’s always done, Garcia will react openly and honestly. That’s the only way he knows. It’s gotten him into trouble before, but never like this. He’s asking for forgiveness, but for a man who has always said what he feels, he’s about to receive a taste of his own medicine.