SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Among the eight men who arrived at the Ryder Cup thanks to a captain’s pick, Tiger Woods will garner the most attention. Ian Poulter will receive the most raucous applause. But with his on-course credentials suddenly lacking, it’s Sergio Garcia who is under the biggest microscope.
The Spaniard boasts an impressive resume in the biennial matches, having stormed onto the scene at Brookline in 1999 and has returned seven times since. But after enduring one of the most difficult seasons of his career, even he had doubts about whether he’d have a spot this week at Le Golf National.
Let Garcia explain it and suddenly the Ryder Cup takes on the form of an ethereal being.
“You know, when things don’t go exactly as you plan or as you want it, and you are playing a lot in the summer and you keep missing cuts by one, it feels like it’s kind of getting a little farther away,” Garcia said. “You still kind of see it, but it starts to get too far away, and you want it to come back.”
Surely when Garcia left Augusta National wearing a green jacket last April, his standing on Team Europe was anything but in doubt. So, too, when he won in January in Singapore to return to the top 10 in the world rankings.
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But then there was his Masters title defense, complete with a cringe-inducing 13 on the 15th hole in the opening round. He missed that cut, then the U.S. Open cut as well. By the time he slammed the trunk at Bellerive he had missed five straight major cuts and was en route to missing the FedExCup Playoffs for the first time in his career.
The form that guided him to a career year in 2017 had vanished in a matter of weeks, leaving his Paris plans in limbo as Thomas Bjorn combed through worthy candidates with only four picks at his disposal.
But the burly Dane ended up adding Garcia to his roster, giving him a chance to build upon his impressive 19-11-7 individual record. Although according to Bjorn, Garcia’s spot on the squad was as much for what he can do in the team room as how he might perform on the course in front of thousands of fans.
“I think just everyone loves Sergio, at least in our team room. He has been the heartbeat of our team for a while, and he has been a constant,” said Rory McIlroy. “He never lets the environment or the atmosphere get too serious, and I think that’s one of the big things about European Ryder Cups over the past few years.”
Nearly two decades removed from his breakthrough duel with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, Garcia has experienced on-course lows before. His form also disappeared in 2010, when he was relegated to a vice-captain role on Colin Montgomerie’s victorious team at Celtic Manor.
But since returning to an elite level, it’s never been quite as lean as it was this summer. Garcia missed seven of 11 cuts through the heart of the season, with a T-8 finish at this week’s venue during the French Open proving to be a lone bright spot.
After he was selected by Bjorn earlier this month, Garcia opted to add last week’s Portugal Masters to his schedule to ensure he didn’t enter the matches off a six-week layoff. That trip netted a T-7 finish, offering some promise that perhaps he would be able to bring some game with him to Paris. But it still left him 28th in the world rankings, behind every American participant and ahead of only Ian Poulter and Thorbjorn Olesen among his European teammates.
Garcia’s spotty 2018 led some to draw parallels to 2016, when Darren Clarke selected Lee Westwood for his veteran presence and despite a lack of recent form. That selection backfired in grand fashion, as Westwood went 0-3 including a missed 3-footer on the last green of his Saturday fourball match that cost the Euros half a point.
But Garcia doesn’t appear to have any apprehension about how he fits on the team this week, a veteran presence on a squad that boasts five rookies. In fact, the lack of apprehension is apparently one of his strongest attributes amid one of the biggest pressure-cookers the game has to offer.
It has also helped Garcia to embrace a role that will extend beyond his win-loss record.
“I think that probably, to be totally honest, is one of the reasons why the vice captains and the captain decided to have me on the team,” Garcia said. “What I’m going to do is just do what I do best, and try to make sure that everyone feels good, comfortable, happy, enjoying themselves. And if we can do that, then it’s much easier for everyone to play their best game.”
Once the youthful visage of the next generation, Garcia is now one of the elder statesmen for the Europeans. His presence here bridges a gap between eras, considering he faced American captain Jim Furyk during singles play in his 1999 debut.
But while the hair may have thinned and the face might bear a few extra creases, Garcia retains a familiar twinkle in his eye whenever the Ryder Cup is at stake. It’s visible again this week, even if the heartbeat of the home team ends up making his biggest impact behind closed doors.