Cats Away Can Sergio Play


After chipping in from behind the second green to square his semifinal match against Ian Poulter last Saturday, Sergio Garcia scurried for the cover of a waiting umbrella, his body language reflective of a man uninspired by the idea of playing 16 more holes in a howling wind and driving rain. I immediately text-messaged a friend to tell him Sergio wouldn't be making it to the 15th tee, not against a bulldog like Poulter, whose spiky hair and mauve trousers barely disguise his reputation as a Brit with grit and not an ounce of quit.
Sergio Garcia
Can Sergio Garcia shine like those bright-colored shirts he wears? (Getty Images)
Now I'm no genius, but I do know a foul-weathered fatalist when I see one, and this wasn't a fair fight. Poulter laid a 7-and-6 thrashing on a guy who seems to get softer by the year, whose career has become increasingly defined by shortcomings instead of accomplishments. Garcia has one PGA Tour victory in the last 4½ years. That triumph, at the 2008 Players Championship, was supposed to mark the arrival of the new Sergio – more mature, more composure down the stretch, less speculation whether he'll ever become the player we swore he'd be.

Garcia turned 30 last month, and by this point, I'd have figured pro golf would have its own version of Shaun White: a happy-go-lucky superstar with lots of trophies, a ton of moxie and a brand of transcendent charisma we'll never get from the Dude in the Red Shirt. Alas, Garcia's mainstream impact has been limited to a couple of beer commercials. Majorless? These days, I'd settle for a victory at The Honda Classic.

You can follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the Land of Broken Promise, but golf is a game of hope, and for Garcia, tomorrow is his best friend. In Arizona last week, his putting stroke looked more fluid and confident than I've seen it in years. With his prime antagonist on the shelf indefinitely, it's worth nothing that Sergio's longest stretch of premium golf occurred while Tiger Woods dealt with knee issues in the spring/summer of '08.

Once again, the cat's away, leaving both mice and men to play. Forever preoccupied with Woods' greatness, it's uncanny how Garcia seems to take advantage of Tiger's absence. At the 2007 British Open – the last time Sir Eldrick started a major but failed to contend – the Claret Jug was Sergio's to win, but he wobbled late and lost to Padraig Harrington in a playoff.

Not 15 minutes later, a grief-stricken, blame-stickin' Garcia filled the media center with ill-conceived excuses. As if the golf gods didn't have better things to do.
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It was deja voodoo at the '08 PGA, another Woods-free zone, where Paddy beat El Nino with some clutch play down the homestretch and a couple of donations from the Spaniard. In a not-so-weird way, it's easy to see why Sergio would retain his Tiger fetish. He's the one who pushed TW to the edge at the 1999 PGA, his first whiff of the hunt at a major.

He was the first of the post-Woods phenoms, still the most heralded of the bunch, which is probably why Tiger started dominating just as Garcia was arriving at his doorstep. At the turn of the millennium, David Duval was the best player in the world, regardless of what the world ranking tells you now, with Woods needing 2½ years just to claim his second major.

It will take Garcia more than a decade to claim his first, a drought no one could have possibly foreseen, but Phil Mickelson didn't claim his first big title until the age of 34 – everybody used to wonder when his day would come. If Woods has a few things to work on away from the golf course, Garcia's ability to reach the next level also depends largely on his willingness to shake hands with reality.

A more focused commitment to golf, a stronger work regimen – you're not going to beat guys like Woods and Harrington with a reliable driver and a handful of excuses. Not yesterday, not today, and in all likelihood, not tomorrow.