Garcia shows off a new sense of maturity

Sergio Garcia

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - It’s February, it’s L.A., and yes, it’s storied Riviera, so there’s no shortage of storylines as the PGA Tour rolls into town with a pronounced bounce in its step. Riding the momentum of Sunday’s thunderboom heavyweight matchup between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach, the Tour moves 320 miles down the Pacific coast with only one of those superstars in tow (the left-hander), yet with plenty of other tales to tell.

Luke Donald, World No. 1 and the man who won not one but two money titles in 2011, one on each side of the pond, is here. His accomplishment was mighty, though the muted golf clap that accompanied it a mere smattering. Donald will get his proper due when he lands his first major championship, perhaps sometime this summer.

Eddie Merrins, the famed “Little Pro” who has called nearby Bel-Air Country Club home for an amazing 50 years, stands behind Donald on the practice tee on this brisk California afternoon, admiring the Englishman’s swing as much as his pluck.

“He’s a heck of a player,” Merrins said. “I think he’ll get better, because he’s proven to himself now. I think what he did at Disney (a final-round 64 to secure the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic and the PGA Tour earnings title) was the most outstanding feat of the year.”

This is the magical lure of the Tour: its players come in so many flavors. There are those at the top (Donald, and as of Sunday, Mickelson), some muddling along at the bottom, and always that pack trying to dust themselves off and stand tall once again (see Woods, Tiger).

If Sergio Garcia were a stock these days, we’d suggest buy. Something about the often tempestuous Spaniard emanates an even-keeled peace and maturity, and if his putting is there – granted, that’s always an enormous “if” – his game seems in good position to accelerate.

Garcia is 32 now, some 13 years removed from the young swashbuckler we viewed slashing Seve-like from behind a tree and scissor-kicking his way across the 16th fairway at Medinah, the unknown youngster trying to run down Tiger Woods that Chicago summer at the PGA. The most refreshing part? Garcia arrived on the world stage exhibiting unabashed joy, wearing a wide grin across his face. He did not get his major that Sunday, but as long and as straight as he drove it, as creative as he was, as solidly as he struck his irons, he would. Soon.

Or so we all believed. Today, his resume lists 10 top 5s in majors, but no trophies.

As much as the game has given Garcia all these years – the private jet, sports cars and copious riches – it has weathered him, too, hitting him with numerous body shots and locking him into the dungeon that is golfer oblivion. Not all players find the key to escape, mind you, but Garcia has. Though his confidence can seem as fleeting and fickle as the cool breezes that whip through the tallest trees at Riviera, these days Garcia seems to reside in a pretty good place. He always has been more artist than technician, and part of his improved standing is the byproduct of rediscovering the joy in his craft. As he said reflectively toward the end of 2011, “when your head is not in the right spot, it doesn’t matter how much game you have.”

“Everything changes,” Garcia said Tuesday at Riviera, where he will make his 2012 PGA Tour debut. “It’s difficult, but obviously you can’t be the same when you’re 32 as when you’re 18 or 19. I think you obviously have more experience. …But you know, I try. I try to be like, I wouldn’t say when I was 18 or 19, but I try to enjoy the game as much I did then, and just try to play it as free-wheeling as I can play.”

Two autumns ago, as Europe celebrated a Ryder Cup triumph over the United States in Wales, Garcia got no closer to the action than as a team vice captain. It was humbling. This September, he aims to play for countryman Jose Maria Olazabal and earn a spot on the team that visits Medinah. It would complete a wide circle of sorts, especially for a young man who plummeted to 82nd in the world last winter and was looking in on some of the game’s biggest events he’d once rubber-stamped into his schedule.

If nothing else, Garcia has shown himself to be a spirited fighter. Back-to-back victories at home in Spain late last season bolstered his confidence. Winning again also marked another step in his journey, the process, that included solid showings in several big stops in 2011: top 10s at the U.S. Open and Open Championship, and 12th-place finishes at the Players, PGA Championship and Europe’s BMW Championship. As he enters Riviera, he's relevant again, ranked 17th in the world.

“I felt like I was doing a lot of good things throughout the whole year, and it was getting better and better,” Garcia said, “and that was giving me the confidence to help me with my game.”

It doesn’t take a police lineup to find the club in his bag that most holds Garcia back: the putter. For starters, consider these 2011 numbers: He finished sixth on Tour in scoring average (69.56) despite ranking 123rd in birdie average (3.39) and 144th in the all-important strokes-gained putting category.

In seven of his last nine PGA Tour seasons, Garcia has been 125th or worse in total putting. So it’s no surprise that Garcia points to the overall uptick in his game to better chipping and putting, and being much stronger mentally, the part that’s “improved the most.”

Fellow globe-trotter Ernie Els agrees that Garcia seems a changed golfer these days.

“It seems like the putter,” Els said when asked to identify the difference. “Amazing thing, that putter. The ball starts going in the hole, your sense of humor and everything changes. I’m not sure what he’s done with his private life or his golf swing . . . it looks the same.

“It looks like he’s a player. He’s back. He’s a player.”

Els uses the term in the most complimentary sense. It’s something the Hall of Famer can sense just in talking with Garcia.

“I feel there’s a little different way about Sergio,” Els said. “He’s over 30 now. He’s one of the old men. He’s been around. He’s obviously trying to prove something to himself, also. He came so close to winning majors and all of that back in the day. We felt that Sergio was the next superstar – which he is – but he needs those majors. I think he’s probably thinking that now.”

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