Kicking Up A Storm With El Nino there to provide the heat, the Nelson turned into a barn burner

May 23, 1999

The ovation was deafening as he walked off the final green on
Sunday at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic, even louder and longer
than the one he had received a few minutes earlier as he strode
up the 18th fairway. Finally, the roaring crowd stood, perhaps as
much to catch a glimpse of him as to express its admiration.

Which golfing great brought this Texas gallery to its feet? Was
it Byron Nelson himself, the 87-year-old wizard of Waxahachie
who tirelessly devotes his time to this tournament? Nope. Was it
Tiger Woods, the former Nelson champ who sizzled during a
first-round 61 but fizzled after a quadruple bogey on Saturday?
Uh-uh. Could it have been the Boss of the Moss, Loren Roberts,
who shot a brilliant 62 in the windy third round and on Sunday
beat Steve Pate on the first hole of sudden death for a
hard-earned victory? Sorry, wrong again.

No, the sun-toasted fans at the TPC at Las Colinas, in Irving,
Texas, were letting it all hang out for a 5'10", 155-pound
Spanish kid. They were cheering for 19-year-old Sergio Garcia,
who was playing in his first Tour event since turning pro a
month ago. Some in the crowd might have remembered Garcia's
showing in April's Masters, in which he was the low amateur, but
most of them were won over by what they had seen with their own
eyes in Irving: long drives, a holed bunker shot, swashbuckling
recoveries and a personal-best 62 in the first round. The fans
also saw Garcia's innocence and sincerity. They could see it in
his smile and in his wonderful manners. When he was introduced
to Nelson on the 1st tee, for example, Garcia removed his cap
and knelt before the older man, who was seated. Garcia knew that
it was not his place to look down on a legend. Add it all up,
and it comes out as charisma.

His nickname is El Nino, which is Spanish for the Boy. He has
been a boy wonder since he was, well, even younger than he is
now. He won the club championship at his home course,
Mediterraneo Club de Golf, near Castellon de la Plana, on the
eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, when he was 12 and had a
scratch handicap at 13. He won the European Amateur at 15 and
the British Amateur last summer. He tied for third at the
Nelson--with Chris DiMarco, Lee Janzen and Brian Watts--seven
shots behind Roberts and Pate, but stole the show. "I watched
him hit 10 shots on the range," one Tour veteran said glumly.
"All 10 were better than my best 10. He's for real."

No one missed the symbolic implications of what happened last
Saturday at the 17th hole, a nasty 171-yard par-3 where Fred
Couples had lost the Nelson the year before by splashing his
ball in the pond guarding the green. As Garcia stood on the tee,
a stiff crosswind swept from left to right toward the water. The
pin was back left. Woods and Pate, playing in the twosome behind
Garcia, had caught up and were there to see Garcia punch a low,
spinning five-iron shot that drew over the flag and checked up
five feet from the hole. Pate turned to Woods and said, "He
doesn't know he's not supposed to aim at that pin. He misses
that by two yards, and he's making 5." Said Woods, "How good was
that?"

The answer: damn good. A few minutes later, after Garcia had
rolled in the birdie putt, Woods ballooned a six-iron into the
pond. He dropped behind the hazard, bounced his next shot off
the rocks and, to make a long story short, mindlessly batted it
around a few more times for a demoralizing 7. That took him from
12 under and four shots out of the lead to eight under and out
of the tournament.

Was what happened at 17 a defining moment, a harbinger of a
season of change, or just one kid stiffing a shot while another
kid watched? Either way, the forecast for El Nino is sunny and
warm. "He's not your average 19-year-old," says Jerry
Higginbotham, who tried out as Garcia's caddie last week after
ending a five-year run with Mark O'Meara last month. "Sergio's
going to win a lot of majors. He hits it extremely long, and
I've never seen anybody hit the driver so straight. He's got the
magic, no doubt about it. Once every 10 years someone like him
comes along."

At least one pro disputed that notion. "Someone like Garcia
might come along once every 20 years," said Joe Ogilvie, a Tour
rookie who played the first two rounds with the Spaniard. "I
don't think this week was a fluke. It wouldn't surprise me if
Sergio won one of his first three or four tournaments. He's
going to be one of those guys who can beat people by nine or 10
shots, like Jose Maria Olazabal did at the 1990 World Series of
Golf. He's got a game like Tiger's. He could just blow away
everybody."

Garcia hits the ball a little lower than Woods and is not quite
as long off the tee. Garcia ranked 10th in driving distance last
week with a 284.8-yard average, while Woods was second at 302.5.
They are of about the same length with their irons. Garcia
usually plays a draw, Woods a fade. Garcia is solid in every
phase of the game, something last week's stats bore out. He
ranked 16th in driving accuracy, 13th in greens hit in
regulation and 12th in putts per green in regulation. "He's no
whiz kid, chipping and putting from all over the place," says
Peter Oosterhuis, the CBS announcer who played on six British
Ryder Cup teams. "He hits the ball like a seasoned pro. He
reminds me, obviously, of Tiger."

Last week Garcia seemed more like Tiger than Tiger. Woods
blistered Cottonwood Valley Golf Club with his 61, his lowest
round as a pro, on a windless day. He still seemed in control
after a 67 at Las Colinas left him in a tie for the 36-hole lead
with Pate, but that changed on Saturday when the wind came up.
Woods was struggling before the disastrous quad--he had bogeyed
two of the three holes leading up to 17--and his mounting
frustration became evident moments after he drowned his tee shot
at the par-3. Glancing at a TV camera, Woods mouthed an
expletive as he ordered the cameraman out of his way.

Woods had been on the receiving end of endless questions about
Garcia during a session with the press the day before, and he
didn't at all seem to mind stepping out of the spotlight.
"There's always going to be a young player," he said. "It's neat
to see a lot of good players in their 20s pushing the game to,
hopefully, new heights. It's similar to what the guys in their
40s now did--guys like Mark O'Meara, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Watson
and all the European Ryder Cuppers. They took the game to a new
level for about 10 years. That's what we're trying to do."

Garcia may turn out to be the savior of the European tour, which
is struggling financially and artistically as its star
players--Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy
Lyle and Ian Woosnam--slowly fade away. The tour is as desperate
for a new star as are the European media, which are likely to
anoint Garcia in record time. Colin Montgomerie is too petulant
for the Brits, while Olazabal and Lee Westwood are aggravatingly
private people. "The European tour is getting boring. It needs
fresh blood," says Jose Marquina, a family friend who serves as
Garcia's manager. "It would be good for European golf if Sergio
can do at home what Tiger did in the U.S."

Growing up at Mediterraneo Club de Golf, where his father,
Victor, was the head pro, Sergio was playing matches with
members for soft drinks and ice cream by the time he was five.
At 13 he made his first trip to the U.S. and beat the
16-year-olds in the Palmetto Junior Classic...by 14 shots. The
following year he told Marquina that his goal was to be No. 1.
When his friend agreed that it would be nice to be the best
player in Spain, Garcia said, No, Number 1 in the world. Like
Woods, he's ambitious.

At 16 Garcia qualified for the British Open at Royal Lytham and
St. Anne's. He missed the cut but will never forget how that
year's champion, Tom Lehman, called him over as he held the
claret jug during the award ceremony. Says Garcia, "He told me,
'Come here, Sergio, and hold it because one day you will win it.'"

Garcia's rapid progression is astonishing. He has won more than
70 amateur tournaments and has played in 30 pro events. He made
his debut as a pro in the April 22-25 Peugot Open de Espana and
finished 25th. At the Nelson he was dazzling at times. On
Thursday he holed a long bunker shot on the 17th hole. In the
second round he got up and down from behind the 6th green,
although there was a bank in front of him and the pin was cut
close to the back edge. "It was probably the greatest up and
down I've ever seen," said Higginbotham. "He hit it into the
bank, bounced it up and stopped it five feet away. What blows my
mind is that he used a 60-degree wedge."

Garcia finished in style too. His approach to the 72nd green
appeared to be blocked by trees. He had 161 yards, uphill and
into swirling winds, yet still stuck his ball six feet from the
pin, drawing a roar from the stunned crowd. "I know his game,"
Marquina said, smiling, "but that last shot, even I thought he
was just going for the green. No, he was going for the flag."

Garcia made the putt for birdie, a share of third and $144,000
toward a Tour card. He'll have more chances toward that end.
After moving to the European tour for this week's Deutsche Bank
SAP Open and the May 28-31 Volvo PGA, Garcia will return to the
U.S. for the June 3-6 Memorial and the FedEx St. Jude Classic
the following week. Yet earning a Tour card is not Garcia's
immediate goal. He has something bigger in mind--the Ryder Cup.
To that end he intends to focus on European events so that he
will have more opportunities to impress Mark James enough to
make him a captain's pick.

Garcia has another year of high school ahead of him, doesn't
have a driver's license yet and has barely gotten his feet wet
as a pro. Of course he thinks he should be on the Ryder Cup
team. (He would be the youngest Ryder Cupper ever.) Gee, Sergio,
don't you miss doing the things normal teenagers do? "Well,
probably," he says, "but the guys back home in Spain, they're
missing this."

They're going to miss a hell of a lot more.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Teen angel A pro for less than a month, the 19-year-old Garcia is already being hailed as the savior of a sagging European tour. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Overdrive Better known for his putting, the gritty Roberts won because he seldom strayed from the fairway or missed the green. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Lean and mean Woods fought the wind on Saturday when he took 40 strokes on the back side and snapped during a 7 on 17.

"Garcia's going to be one of those guys who can beat people by
10 shots," said Ogilvie. "He could blow away everybody."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)