PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Anyone who doesn’t think golf is a game played between the ears has never met Sergio Garcia.
If there were a portal into his mind like in the movie “Being John Malkovich,” I would pony up for that wild adventure. There would need to be a black velvet rope and a menacing bouncer – Vijay Singh, perhaps – to handle the overflow crowds.
After shooting a 5-under 67 in the first round of The Players Championship, Garcia gave us the next best thing: plenty of insight into his once tortured soul and the current ebullient state of his mind.
“The highs are always nice, but the lows are always difficult because when you know that you can do something the way that you know how to do it, it is a little bit frustrating,” Garcia said. “When you’re going through a bad patch, you make a bogey, and it’s like, oh, here we go again. I don’t know, the mind is a beautiful thing.”
In Garcia’s mind lies a little John Nash, the Nobel Laureate in economics who experiences delusional episodes and whose life was the basis for the lead character of the movie “A Beautiful Mind.”
Garcia was a prodigy who seemed on the verge of delivering on his vast potential after he won the 2008 Players Championship and finished that season ranked No. 2 in the world.
Ever since, the close calls and disappointments have piled up. Nine times Garcia has finished in the top five at a major. To many, it’s mind-boggling that he hasn’t shed the label of “best player never to win a major.”
“It’s borderline shocking,” Tom Lehman once said.
The mental hurdles involved in winning a major still trouble him. After he dropped out of contention with a third-round 75 at the 2012 Masters, Garcia spewed a fresh round of negativity and perhaps the most revealing glimpse into his tortured soul. “I’m not good enough (to win a major),” he told the Spanish press. “I don’t have the thing I need to have.”
In the immediate aftermath of the final round, when pressed asked him to elaborate on the missing ingredient, he answered, “Everything.”
To which Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano remarked, “If he doesn’t have it, 80 percent of the field, we should just go home and do something else, because he’s got everything. He’s got every shot in the bag.”
Garcia has wallowed in self-pity before. But this was the first occasion in which he betrayed self-doubt, and it renewed concerns that he might lack the temperament needed in his unnerving profession.
With two years of reflection, Garcia explained his outburst of raw emotions that day this way: “It was one of those moments where you kind of – things going on in your head, and it just explodes and you feel like you have to say it.”
Fernandez-Castano, for one, remains a believer. He and Garcia are longtime friends who grew up playing together since the age of 10.
“He used to beat us by 10 shots every week,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I’ve seen him doing things that I haven’t seen anybody else (doing) – probably the only one (is) Tiger. He’s phenomenal.”
Fernandez-Castano recounted that he was the latest in a long line of Garcia’s friends who have pulled him aside and given him some much-needed tough love.
“He was a bit grumpy on the course and he never seemed to enjoy what he was doing,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I remember I had a talk with him in Munich not that long ago and I said, ‘Sergio, you do not have to do this if you don’t enjoy it. You know what I mean? You’re a millionaire; you have a fantastic family, they’re all healthy, they love you, and you don’t have to play golf if you don’t have fun. Take a rest and come back when you enjoy it again.’ ”
Garcia’s sunnier disposition registers in his expression. He’s smiling more often. He speaks affectionately of his relationship with girlfriend Katharina Boehm, who was on his bag when he won the Thailand Championship late last year. He’s playing soccer and tennis, and his memories of his shortcomings here last year seemingly are in the past.
At the 17th tee a year ago, he dunked two balls in the final round to fall out of contention. This time, he took one practice swing, waggled and took dead aim. When asked if that was a conscious decision to hit quickly, he said, “It did cross my mind. I’m not going to lie. I was trying to be positive. It’s a new year. Let’s improve on it. I pulled it a little bit there, but it was an okay shot.”
Garcia’s words flowing with optimism? Next you’ll tell me he’s making putts again. Oh, he ranked eighth last year and 34th this season in strokes gained-putting, you say? Could a second Players title be the launching pad to winning a major this season?
“I think deep inside he knows he can,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I think he wants one, and I think he will get it.”
What a beautiful mind.