2006: PGA Championship: Still a big shot

Sergio Garcia returns to another PGA Championhip at Medinah, site of his 1999 blastoff into golf consciousness, with heightened anticipation. He is eager to recapture one of his life’s best moments and buoyed by a tie for fifth place at the British Open, his first good showing at a major in a year.

“I’m looking forward to it, and now even more,” Garcia said at the British, where he started the final round one stroke behind Tiger Woods and ended seven back. “It’s going to be nice to go there and remember what happened that day.”

What happened is that a rookie from Spain, then 19, fearless and wide-eyed, took a 23-year-old Woods to the brink at the famed tree-lined course near Chicago. He would lose by a shot but win hearts with one swing.

“A kick start,” he said of the impact that PGA had on his still young career.

The real kick, of course, came in the fourth round at the dogleg-left 16th, where his tee shot ended up in the right rough dangerously close to the base of a large red oak, in a small half-moon indentation between two roots 189 yards from the hole. Somehow, with eyes closed at impact and body moving left, Garcia sliced a marvelous 6-iron shot. He would punctuate the moment by sprinting down the fairway and jumping up to try to see the ball. Once he realized the ball was on the green, he put his hand over his heart twice and smiled the smile of childhood joy.

Then he called that week the best of his life. Now he realizes people everywhere were taken by the tree shot and his reaction.

“The people really started to like me,” Garcia says now. “They liked the way I reacted. I just did what I had to do to hit a decent shot into the green. I was trying to win, and it was a risky shot. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong there. I could’ve hit the tree with the club and probably hit myself. I could’ve hit the tree with the ball and maybe hit me.”

Like countless Medinah visitors the past seven years, Garcia says he will go to the tree during a practice round and inspect his place of glory. But don’t expect him to drop a ball and attempt to replicate history.

“I’ll take a look at it, but I won’t try it,” he said.

On that sunny Sunday, at a time when golf hungered for duels at the top, Garcia was prematurely anointed as a chief rival to Woods. Since then, though, Woods has won nine major championships, running his total to 11, and Garcia none.

The Spaniard has had 10 top-10 finishes in majors since his breakout at Medinah, but hasn’t been as high as second again. He has starred on Ryder Cup teams and won six times on the PGA Tour and 10 more times overseas. But looking back, Garcia, if not the golf public, anticipated more.

“I’m definitely happy the way things have gone, but of course I did expect more,” Garcia said. “I was hoping for more. But I’m very happy. If you go around to young guys 26, 27 or 28, and ask them if they’d like Sergio’s career, I don’t think many would say no. I’d like to do a little better, but I’m not the only one playing, so it’s not that easy.”

Garcia last year became only the third person since 1970 to win six Tour titles by age 25. He joined Woods and Phil Mickelson. He maintains that, because he’s still young, he’s not concerned that none of those victories have come in majors.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” Garcia said. “Hopefully it will happen soon, but I don’t want to wait long, either. I just want to keep enjoying the game. More than anything, just be happy. Just have a nice life. Down the road if I had to choose, would you rather win five or six majors and be miserable, or win none or maybe one and have a great life, I’d rather take that (latter).”

He has come up short for the same reason Woods has kept on claiming Grand Slam victories: Putting. We’ve seen Woods make crucial putt after crucial putt in majors. And we’ve witnessed Garcia, one of the game’s premier ballstrikers, miss so many in the 5- to 15-foot range.

Though he missed two short putts early in the British Open’s final round, Garcia said he “felt good” putting at Hoylake. “Probably the best I’ve felt in a major with the putter stroke-wise,” said the Spaniard, who had switched back to a left-hand-low grip the week before.

This year he has been held back by Sundays and his stroke. His final-round scoring average of 73.89 ranks 188th on Tour. He’s 162nd in putting average and 173rd in total putts.

Garcia says he probably was a better putter as a teenage amateur. But he maintains he always has been a streaky putter.

“I’m trying to improve,” he said. “It’s not as simple as people might think. Johnny Miller (one of his critics) should know about that.”

He’s not only trying to improve, he’s trying to purge negative thoughts on the greens.

“Of course it is a bit mental because at the end of the day it’s important you putt well,” Garcia said. “Sometimes if you start doubting, it’s harder to make putts. We all do (have periods of doubt).”

Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, played with Garcia at Royal Liverpool and informed, contrary to perhaps some perception, that the ninth-ranked player in the world “doesn’t putt like a 6 handicap.” That said, Couples said if Garcia were the best putter, people might expect him to win every tournament because of his shotmaking skill.

“He certainly is not an Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Jim Furyk or Retief Goosen (on the greens),” Couples said. “Does he hit it better than those guys? You know, he may. There's a fine line from being this great four or five guys they keep talking about, and he's just on the outside. And it’s because he doesn’t putt like those guys.”

Irek Myskow, who recruited Garcia to and manages his account for TaylorMade-adidas Golf, projects that his friend could win six or seven times in a season if he putted well.

“It’s been a case of missing the makeable putts he used to be good at,” Myskow said. “He used to putt lights out. We’ve had this conversation. He knows if that element of his game gets better, as he expects, he will become the player he wants to be.”

That might be the player many expected him to be after 1999. Back when one shot made him something of a big shot in the matter of no time.

“The next morning, at the International, it was unbelievable how many people recognized him,” Myskow said. “Monday night we were in a steakhouse in Denver and it was impossible for him to sit down without signing autographs for everyone in the restaurant. Like overnight.

“That was a career-changing shot in a way.”

That would be a career, of course, awaiting a major change.

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