By Chuck Stogel
Sergio Garcia’s continuing changes to his game seem to be working. First there were major adjustments to his swing during the winter. Then, most recently, he has been working on his putting. Now, the week before the U.S. Open, he has captured his second PGA Tour playoff victory in a month by winning his second Buick Classic title.
Garcia, who won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship May 16 in a three-way playoff, rammed in a 7-footer for birdie on the third extra hole June 13 to overcome Rory Sabbatini, who had just missed a 20-foot birdie attempt, and Padraig Harrington, who dropped out with a bogey on the second playoff hole.
“I’ve done well in playoffs,” said Garcia, a 24-year-old Spaniard who has won three of four PGA Tour playoffs. “I play the same (as during regulation). I don’t change strategy. It’s just more (golf) to play.”
Garcia, who went par-par-birdie in the playoff, confided that he had gotten a putting lesson from fellow pro Brad Faxon after shooting a 1-under-par 70 in the first round, concentrating more on his approach to lining up putts rather than his stroke. “We focused on my hitting the ball where I wanted it to go, not making the putt,” he said.
Garcia responded with 67-68-67 in the next three rounds, dropping a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to be the first of the foreign-born playoff threesome to register a 12-under 272.
Harrington, 32, who hails from Ireland and has eight PGA European Tour victories but has yet to win on the PGA Tour, was next to gain a playoff spot by knocking in a bellied wedge from off the green for a birdie 4 to wrap up his fourth consecutive 68 in the event.
Sabbatini, 28, who was born in South Africa, then followed in the last group of the day with a 12-footer for birdie for a 1-under 70 and a spot in the playoff.
For Garcia, who was four strokes off the lead at the start of the final round in a tournament that attracted 22 of the top 25 money winners on tour, the victory was his fifth in the United States, including his triumph at the Buick Classic in 2001. The winner’s share of $945,000 catapulted him to fifth place on this year’s money list at $2,647,438.
Harrington, who has been second three times on the PGA Tour, collected $462,000, as did two-time winner Sabbatini.
Fred Couples, who suffered back pains early in the tournament but led after 36 holes, tied for fourth, two strokes out of the playoff, primarily because of a third-round 74. He was knotted with Vijay Singh, the leading money winner on Tour this year who shot a tournament-record opening round 63, and Tom Byrum, who closed with a 71 for his 274. All three earned $217,000.
The also-rans included several players who may have been thinking more of tuning up for this week’s Open, including Ernie Els, who won The Memorial, and Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who played solidly enough to tie for 16th at 279. Both said afterward they were satisfied with their play and ready for Shinnecock Hills.
Garcia certainly would like to win the Open, but he wasn’t overlooking the Buick Classic, which is played on one of his favorite layouts, the West course at Westchester Country Club.
“I love this place and even if I had not won, I’d feel confident (for the Open),” said Garcia, who won by three shots over Scott Hoch with a 268 in 2001. “I’ve been playing so well.”
In the final round, 12 players were within three shots of the lead on the front nine and seven players within two shots of leaders Harrington, Sabbatini and Byrum after 15 holes.
Despite four 68s, Harrington was not satisfied with his performance and said he was concerned as he left for Shinnecock Hills.
“I played terrible all week,” he said. “I really struggled. I haven’t got the ball under any control. Hopefully, my coach could suggest something, but the last thing you want to do before a U.S. Open is try to find a golf swing.”
One player not headed to the Open and perhaps the most disappointed player not to win the Buick Classic may have been 48-year-old Loren Roberts, who racked up eight birdies en route to a Saturday 64 and the third-round lead. An eight-time Tour winner whose last victory was the 2002 Valero Texas Open, Roberts couldn’t get anything rolling in the finale. He suffered three bogeys and a double bogey in his first eight holes en route to 78 and a share of 16th.
– Chuck Stogel is a free-lance writer from New York.