Golf writers throughout the universe celebrated Christmas 7 ½ months early in 2013, as The Players Championship produced enough ripe, sexy storylines to last us deep into the calendar. Two awesome catfights – one beginning with a lawsuit, the other ending with someone in serious need of a wetsuit – capped a week that has me pondering why I’d ever want to do anything else for a living.
So much for ditching it all to audition for the position as Brooklyn Decker’s personal masseur. Vijay Singh sues the PGA Tour, not only biting the hand that feeds, but ordering his lawyers to chew off Camp Ponte Vedra’s entire right arm! Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods hissing at each other in public!
Garcia’s aquatic adventures and Woods’ 78th PGA Tour victory only provided the tawdry tale with additional heft, sort of like telling Jackie Gleason he needed to put on a few more pounds.
Poor David Lingmerth. The guy makes it to the 72nd hole with a chance to force a playoff – and he gets a pack of saltines from the folks who run the buzz bureau. Actually, “poor” is not the right word to describe the Swedish rookie, who earned $709,334 by finishing T-2. Maybe he can buy a megaphone and some Sergio repellent the next time someone tries to crash his 15 minutes of fame.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some rubbernecking to do.
DAN HICKS NAILED it. The Woods-Garcia feud began on the evening of Aug. 28, 2000 – barely 24 hours after Tiger holed that gimme in the dark to win at Firestone by 11 shots. As NBC’s golf anchor pointed out a couple of times on the weekend telecasts, Tiger didn’t appreciate Sergio’s end-zone dance after he beat Woods in an 18-hole, made-for-TV match known as the Battle at Bighorn.
Garcia took the name of the event literally and blew his bugle with gusto. Woods was tired that night after demolishing the field in Ohio, came up with the sniffles once it became clear he wouldn’t win, then added the young Spaniard to his list of Things I Will Crush 80 Times Before I Die.
Here’s the thing: compared with most of Sergio’s celebrations over the years, this one hardly was over the top. He didn’t show up Woods, who had to approve Garcia as his opponent for the match to even occur. This was right in the middle of Tiger’s greatest season ever, so he wasn’t used to losing to anyone, anywhere, but no one ever said anger draws its roots from rationale.
From there, the alpha-male factor prevented the two men from resolving their differences privately, or even trying. Garcia’s inferiority complex as a competitor made the relationship more complicated. His most notable gripes about Woods have been well-documented; others illustrate how deep-seated the resentment would become.
At Westchester one year, Sergio approached me on the practice green with stern look. “Why is it always about him?” he asked several times. “You guys act like nobody else is out here. Only him.” This went on for a few minutes – none of my replies were registering. Just when I thought the guy was starting to crack up, Garcia broke into his million-dollar smile.
“I had you!” he rejoiced. “You thought I was serious! Oh man, the look on your face was so good!”
Sergio was right. He did have me. And it was funny, but also telling. In a weird sort of way.
WE GOT TO know each other pretty well, mainly because Garcia factored so frequently at the major championships and because he could be an extremely likeable, down-to-earth dude. I spent a bunch of time with him one year at Callaway Gardens, home of the old Buick Challenge, where Golf Digest arranged to have a Ferrari delivered to the course for photos.
Sergio likes fast cars. I am certain of that, because he threw me into the passenger seat and took me on a death ride across some nearby countryside. He reached speeds well in excess of 150 miles per hour, and as frightened as I was that my life was in the hands of a 22-year-old kid who couldn’t make a 4-footer, it was an immense bonding experience.
My favorite Sergio story happened a few years later in Charlotte. We had arranged an interview after the Wednesday pro-am, and as he made his way off Quail Hollow’s 18th green, Garcia headed straight for the handicapped seating area, where seven or eight people were enjoying the day.
There were a couple of mentally handicapped kids, a few others in wheelchairs – Sergio spent at least 20 minutes with them, probably longer, smiling and listening and enriching their lives with his playful charm. Having spent a significant portion of my adulthood at pro-ams, I am fairly certain I have never seen a more profound act of random kindness from a tour pro.
Over the years, I have seen Garcia kiss old ladies on the forehead and give complete strangers more time than they could possibly ask for. I have also seem him spit in a hole at Doral and heard him whine about stuff in a ghastly displays of over-entitlement. He is a fascinating human being, full of flaws and sheer brilliance, raised by two incredibly kind parents, then baptized to mega-greatness as the first and most visible post-Woods phenom.
Some paths are easier to navigate than others.
THIS WEEK’S BYRON Nelson Championship used to be one the true hotspots on the PGA Tour. Huge crowds, great weather – the first big gathering of top-tier players after the Masters. As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, those days are gone. The biggest name in this year’s field is probably John Daly, which is saying something.
Sticking to the Sergio theme, Garcia made the Nelson his first “regular” Tour event in 1999 – his U.S. debut had been at the Masters that same spring. He would finish T-3 at TPC Las Colinas, and the excitement he generated almost seemed surreal. There must have been 50 teenaged girls hanging around the clubhouse, waiting for him a half-hour after play had concluded.
I was introduced to Garcia by his then-agent. The kid had impeccable manners and a self-assuredness you don’t often find in a 19-year-old. No question in my mind, the burden of expectations and ensuing failures haunt Sergio like few players I’ve ever met. For him to miss Sawgrass’ 17th green twice to the right with a wedge – we’re talking about a predominantly right-to-left player – is difficult to comprehend.
Three years later, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Woods at Las Colinas for an oral history I was compiling on the 1999 Ryder Cup. “Let’s go,” he said, motioning me toward the players’ dining room, which is strictly off limits to reporters.
“You sure?” I asked.
Tiger didn’t bother to respond or turn around. When Eldrick Almighty says you’re going to player dining, even one question is one too many.
We were about five minutes into the interview, and who shows up at our table, looking for a place to eat? Phil Mickelson. The entire room went quiet. All eyes seemed to be on us – I half-expected Allen Funt to come barging through the door at any moment. And for the next 20 minutes or so, I watched the two best players of this generation in some awkward, somewhat humorous small talk.
It is my belief that Woods and Mickelson are much more cordial now than they were in 2002, but on that May afternoon, it was almost like two Dobermans staking out their turf. I remember the two men making a $100 bet on the NBA Finals even though the series was still almost a month away. Woods took his favorite team, the Lakers, and Mickelson, who had initiated the wager in an obvious attempt at camaraderie, took the New Jersey Nets, who wound up getting swept by L.A.
I still wonder if Tiger got paid. What I don’t wonder about is his mental stamina when it comes to judging people, figuring out who’s on his side and who isn’t. Garcia got bounced on that August evening in 2000, and almost 13 years later, a longtime grudge continues to be public. I don’t think Woods pulled that club from his bag on the second hole last Saturday to distract Garcia on purpose, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t regret it, either.