SOUTHPORT, England – Cuanto más azúcar más dulce.
The literal translation from Sergio Garcia’s native Spanish is, “The more sugar, the sweeter,” but a more nuanced meaning was etched into the 37-year-old’s face when he bounded into the media center at Royal Birkdale to chat with scribes at The Open.
There is a notable spring in Garcia’s step these days that’s been missing at various points over his lengthy career, although when asked about his improved outlook he appeared to purposely gloss over the finer details.
“I don't think so. Do I seem like a different person?” was his response when asked if he has been magically transformed by his victory earlier this year at Augusta National.
For personal purposes it’s probably best Garcia doesn’t indulge in such an emotional deep dive at this junction in his career. Healthy, happy, hungry – nothing to see here.
This week is, after all, a big one for El Nino. The Open was always the one he envisioned winning growing up in Castellon, Spain.
“As a European, The Open is the one you relate to because I remember in Spain as a kid, we couldn't see the Masters on TV. The British Open, you could see it here and there, and also it was during the day,” he said. “You do kind of really relate to this one a little bit more.”
Garcia’s resume at the ancient gathering also feeds that narrative. It was at The Open where Padraig Harrington broke his heart a decade ago at Carnoustie and Rory McIlroy held him off in ’14 at Royal Liverpool for what are, by any measure, gutting near-misses.
Everything about links golf works in Garcia’ favor. His ball-striking, which has always been the standard others aspire to, was a perfect fit for the cold, wet wind that can make the game’s oldest championship such a test, and his sometimes-pedestrian putting is mitigated by what are normally the slowest greens on the Grand Slam dance card.
He played his first major in ’96 at Royal Lytham as a 16-year-old amateur, and began his Grand Slam career as a professional three years later at Carnoustie when he shot 89-83 and sobbed on his mother's shoulder on his way out of Scotland.
That he arrives on the English coast this week with such momentum, both on and off the course, only fuels the notion that his name is destined to be etched into the claret jug.
Breaking through the Grand Slam ceiling at Augusta National has undoubtedly helped, but there are limitations to the correlation.
“Winning the Masters was amazing and it does give you a little bit of extra confidence, and I've been having a very solid year. So all of those things are great,” Garcia said. “But every week is different, and you don't know how you're going to feel when you go out there on the course.”
Perhaps, but off the course Garcia’s fortunes have improved dramatically in recent years and there is an undeniable cause-and-effect relationship between his personal and professional outlook.
Earlier this year he announced his engagement to Angela Akins and the two are scheduled to marry next week, and his performance on the course has dovetailed with that milestone. He began the year with a victory at the Dubai Desert Classic, hasn’t missed a cut anywhere in the world in 2017 and finished runner-up in his last start (the BMW International Open).
By comparison, although it’s anecdotal following his high-profile split with then-girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman in ’09, Garcia’s game went to a similarly dark place.
After winning The Players in ’08, Garcia went four years without another victory on the PGA Tour, he failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup in ’10 – the only time he’s missed the matches in his career – and tumbled to outside the top 80 in the world ranking.
“I felt I had to stop playing the game for a while,” Garcia said at the time.
Although he’s understandably reluctant to revisit those difficult days, the juxtaposition between his demeanor then and now is dramatic, regardless of how the numbers add up on his scorecard.
Bad bounces no longer burrow into his psyche like they once did and even his pre-Masters major record no longer haunts him the way it once did as evidenced on Monday when he was asked if having a green jacket in his wardrobe somehow makes all of those bridesmaid finishes a little more palatable.
“They're still painful because they're chances that you wish you would have taken and unfortunately you didn't,” he said. “It definitely made the Masters more enjoyable, I would put it that way.”
For a player who has always worn his emotions on his Gore-Tex, there was no denying the smirk that creased across his face when asked if this Open, his 21st start at the championship, is somehow different.
“I am excited about it. I am confident about my possibilities, but I can't tell you if I'm going to be right up there on Sunday with a chance,” he shrugged. “I'm hoping that I will be but unfortunately it doesn't work like that every week.”
Pressure can be relative. Expectations had built for decades before Garcia finally broke through at Augusta National and that really hasn’t changed at the major that has always meant the most to him. The only difference now is that life is still sweet, with or without a trophy.