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Child's Play All tuned up for his first Ryder Cup, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia is making golf look easy--and fun

Sept. 27, 1999
Sept. 27, 1999

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Sept. 27, 1999

Catching Up With...

Child's Play All tuned up for his first Ryder Cup, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia is making golf look easy--and fun

Medinah's expansive locker room was nearly deserted when
19-year-old Sergio Garcia finally saw a replay of the Shot. No
need to identify which shot. For millions of television viewers
and anyone following the young Spaniard in person on that
memorable final nine of the PGA Championship last month, the
Shot need be identified only by the hole on which it was struck:
16.

This is an article from the Sept. 27, 1999 issue Original Layout

His drive had nestled at the base of an oak, leaving Garcia, who
had closed to within a stroke of a faltering Tiger Woods, 189
yards, two protruding roots and a 30-yard slice away from the
green. Jail? The sagacious heads in the television booth were
worried about hospital if Garcia attempted to cut a six-iron to
the flag from that nasty nook. If he didn't whiff, a broken club
and a broken wrist seemed likely. For his part, Garcia thought
the worst-case scenario was an 8: ball hits tree and caroms off
his body for a two-stroke penalty.

"What do you think?" he asked his veteran caddie, Jerry
Higginbotham.

"Lay up and try to make par," Higginbotham sensibly advised.

Garcia, being 19, bulletproof and supremely talented, ignored
the advice. There's an expression in Spanish for the way he
plays: Suerte o muerte. Luck or death. And this was not Sergio's
day to die.

Hours later, in the company of a half-dozen green-uniformed
janitors, two locker room attendants and Garcia's friend and
business agent, Jose Marquina, the golfing sensation known as El
Nino had his first opportunity to see what everyone else had
seen that day--what inspired tens of thousands of spectators to
chant, "SER-GEE-O! SER-GEE-O!!" until it made the hairs on his
father's neck stand on end: the tortured moments of indecision,
the tentative address, then the desperate kill-the-snake slash
with eyes shut and body falling away. "Loco, loco," Garcia
commented as the tape replayed his madcap dash up the fairway
and his boyish leap to try to follow the ball's improbable,
bending flight.

As the replay showed the ball settling onto the green, the
Medinah janitors erupted in cheers. They patted the kid on the
back, congratulated him in Spanish and posed with him for
pictures, their arms draped casually around his narrow
shoulders, like long-lost friends. Unfazed, Garcia smiled shyly,
with a winning mixture of humility and pride. No question about
it: There'd been two winners on that final day of the final
major of the 20th century. Three if you counted golf. As a
locker room attendant said to the kid after watching the replay
of a deeply relieved Woods tapping in his final putt, "He beat
you, but you wore his ass out."

Not for the last time, according to most experts. Even Woods has
observed that Garcia has more game at 19 than he had at the same
age, and Garcia has said he'd love nothing better than to be
paired against Woods in this Sunday's singles matches of the
Ryder Cup, which is scheduled to start on Friday at the Country
Club in Brookline, Mass. There isn't a golf fan breathing who
won't feel cheated if that doesn't happen. "They have a lot in
common," says Marquina, who heads Sergio's support
group-management team, which was formed when Sergio was 15 and
includes a business manager, a doctor, a trainer and an English
tutor. Marquina has known the young prodigy since Sergio was
six. "Both Sergio and Tiger started playing when they were
three, both were famous amateurs when they were young, and both
have the same attitude, the same determination to be Number 1."

For all his talent, though, Woods is not the warmest of
personalities. No knock against him. Most of the great ones are
so intent on getting the ball into the hole that they appear
insular and aloof. "The great players all have a degree of
concentration, a determination, that separates them from the
good ones," says Artie McNickle, director of golf at La Gorce
Country Club in Miami Beach--Marquina's home club and also
Garcia's home course when he comes to the U.S. In the '70s and
'80s, McNickle spent 10 years on the PGA Tour, and the first
time he played with Garcia, the kid reminded him of a young Tom
Watson.

"I call it, well, it's unprintable what I call it," McNickle
says. "But in effect they'd step on the throat of their own
mother to win. Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,
Watson--they all had it. But of those who had it, only Palmer
also had the ability to endear himself to you. That's rare. It's
too early to say for sure, but Sergio may have both."

Garcia began winning over strangers while growing up in the
small town of Borriol (pop. 3,000), which is on the
Mediterranean coast, a couple of hours south of Barcelona. When
he was still smaller than his own golf bag, he used to challenge
members at Le Club de Golf del Mediterraneo to putting contests
for Cokes. His father, Victor, has been the head pro there for
20 years, since the club opened, and his mother, Consuelo, runs
the pro shop. They lived in an apartment a couple of miles from
the course, so Sergio, who is the middle child of three kids,
spent a lot of time at the club. "From the time he was tiny, he
was very competitive and never intimidated," his father recalls.
"He would walk up to anyone and say, 'Do you want to play for a
Coke?' He'd never ask whether the person had a 2 or an 18
handicap. He had no fear. In the end, even if he lost, he got a
Coke. He was a charming kid."

Back then Sergio dreamed of being a professional soccer player
for Real Madrid. Golf was just for fun. When he was 10, he broke
80 for the first time and later won Spain's top under-12
tournament. At 12 he broke 70 and became the club champion. By
the time he was 13, he was scratch, and Victor knew his son had
the chance to be something special. "There are amateurs who are
scratch but who will clearly always be amateurs," Victor says.
"With Sergio, even when he was 13, he thought like a
professional. He had incredible maturity."

Marquina, who has lived in Miami since 1990 but whose parents
are members of the Club del Mediterraneo, suggested that Sergio
start to play tournaments in the U.S. When Victor agreed,
Marquina entered the 13-year-old in an under-18 tournament, the
Palmetto Junior Classic, at a club near Miami. Sergio won by 14
strokes.

Victor, who was making his first trip to the U.S., was in tears
after the tournament, thinking how his life had changed since he
was a boy of 13. Victor had started working as a caddie when he
was 11, and in those days caddies weren't allowed to play, or
even practice, on most courses in Spain. The only time Victor
could hit balls was very early in the morning, before the
greenkeeper and the caddie master arrived at the course at
around 7:30. Sometimes it was still dark when he and the other
caddies got out there.

"I hadn't traveled much, so being in the United States was
excitement enough," Victor says. "I'd been told so much about
the best players being in the U.S. Then Sergio wins the
tournament. Can you imagine? The happiness! It doesn't matter
the level--the first tournament victory is the prettiest."

From that point Sergio's rise was meteoric. At 15 he competed in
his first professional event, the 1995 Turespana Open. That same
year he won the European amateur. At 16 he played in his first
British Open, shooting 76-73 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to miss
the cut by six shots. Still an amateur at 17, Sergio won his
first pro tournament, the 1997 Catalonian Open.

"When I was 18, I told my father I felt I could turn pro right
now, that I had nothing else to learn from amateur golf," Garcia
says. "But I wanted to play in the Masters." A win in either the
U.S. or British Amateur carries with it an invitation to Augusta
to play in a tournament that had been won by Seve Ballesteros
and Jose Maria Olazabal, the two lions of Spanish golf. Garcia
was willing to postpone his pro debut for a chance to follow in
the footsteps of his idols.

"All three of them are very aggressive," says Marquina. "They're
going to lose some tournaments because they're always looking at
the pin, not the green--but they'll win more. They play with
their soul. Seve told Sergio once, playing a shot is something
that comes from your heart, not your mind."

Ballesteros, particularly, has been a guiding influence for
Sergio, who says he is "like a second father." Victor is good
friends with Seve's older brother, Baldomero, whom he'd played
against when they were young. So when Sergio was 14, Victor took
the liberty of asking Seve if he'd mind playing with his son at
a tournament. "Ballesteros was very kind," Victor recalls. "He
said he'd be happy to. He seems standoffish, but he's exactly
the opposite when you get to know him. Once he's your friend,
it's forever. Sergio was radiating happiness, and Seve gave him
good advice, not only about his swing, but as a person and how
to behave on the course."

"Ever since then we've made quite a golf couple," Sergio says. "I
learned a lot from watching Seve, what a big fighter he is, to
never give up. And also some magic shots. It doesn't matter from
where--beside the green, behind a tree, in the bunker. He didn't
teach me. It's something you can't teach. These shots are
something that's inside of you, and you have to see them in your
imagination. From watching Seve, I am now able to let this magic
out."

Garcia won the 1998 British Amateur, earning his invitation to
the '99 Masters. (He later lost in the semifinals of the '98
U.S. Amateur after knocking off defending champion Matt Kuchar.
Over the last three years he's put together a 38-2 match-play
record, which bodes well for him at the Ryder Cup.) Garcia
finished his amateur career at the Masters, making the cut and
becoming the first European to be low amateur, ending up in a
tie for 38th.

Immediately afterward he turned pro, selecting the Spanish Open
to make his debut. He finished a respectable 25th. Team Garcia
had decided that Sergio should split his time between the U.S.
Tour, where he could try to earn his card by finishing in the
top 125 on the money list, and the European tour, where he might
catch the eye of Ryder Cup captain Mark James. In his first stop
on the PGA Tour, in May, he shot an opening-round 62 at the
Byron Nelson Invitational, eventually finishing in a tie for
third. Against another strong field at the Memorial, the
19-year-old was 11th. In his sixth pro start he won the Irish
Open by three shots on July 4, closing with a final-round 64.
The next week he finished in a second-place tie at Loch Lomond.
The kid was for real, all right, and suddenly one of the
favorites going into the British Open.

Which is why his rounds of 89-83 at Carnoustie were so shocking.
"There were too many expectations," Garcia says. "You have to be
a little lucky on links courses, and I was very unlucky. My good
shots were turning out bad, and my bad shots were turning into
triple bogey. But you know what? I don't care. You tell me I
finish last in the British Open, and everything else happens the
way it did the rest of the year, that's fine with me."

Suerte o muerte. What golfer doesn't die a thousand deaths? "The
important thing was the way he came back in his next major," says
McNickle. "He shoots 66 to take the first-round lead in the PGA.
Then when someone asks him what happened at the British Open, he
says, 'I think I just answered that. Next question.' I loved
that."

His second-place finish at Medinah vaulted him to 55th on the
PGA Tour money list, meaning he had accomplished both of his
goals after turning pro. In only 14 events, he earned enough
points to qualify for the Ryder Cup in Europe and enough money
to play in America next year if he so desires.

Still, there are those who worry--golf analyst Johnny Miller has
talked about this--that Garcia's unorthodox swing will lead to
problems when he loses some of his youthful flexibility.
Sergio's weight transfer at the top is lightning fast, and he
drops his hands unusually low on the downswing, cocking his
wrists to generate more power in a move reminiscent of Hogan's
swing. "His swing path is so shallow, he gets into problems
hitting out of the rough, where I've seen him cold top the ball
a couple of times," says noted swing guru David Leadbetter.
"It's a swing that looks more handsy and wristy than the modern
swing, almost like it was developed in the age of hickory
shafts. As Sergio gets older, he'll probably make some subtle
changes. But all of them do. There's a lot more to this kid than
technique. He's got a great mind-set, a great short game, and he
manages the course well. It's like he's got a 30-year-old head
on a 19-year-old body."

"I never followed Hogan," says Victor, who has recently seen
pictures of the four-time U.S. Open champion's swing next to
that of his son, and acknowledges they are similar. "That was
purely accidental. Sergio's swing is a natural movement, and
he's made it all his life."

Sergio isn't about to tinker with success. "I've heard people
say my swing's not perfect, and I know that," he says. "But
golf's a natural sport, very sensitive. It's played a lot by
feel. I don't care if my swing is too flat. If it works, I don't
have to change it."

That natural approach applies to the time he spends on the
driving range as well. "I've never been one to hit a lot of
balls on the practice tee," Garcia says. "At this point what's
most important isn't practicing, it's letting your body recover
from too much golf. When you're resting, that's when you really
improve."

That's why, on a recent trip home, he spent his free time
playing tennis and soccer with friends instead of padding his
bank account with corporate outings. "Money's not the issue with
us," says Marquina, who has signed only two endorsement
contracts for Sergio, one with Adidas and one with Acushnet, for
a reported total of about $10 million. "We're not going to
overexpose him. In Sergio's family the goal was always to be the
Number 1 golfer in the world, not to make the most money. He has
to do normal teenage things. There's no marketing plan here. I
never tell him how to act. I never said, 'Tip your hat to the
crowds.' He just does it. People think that when he ran up the
fairway on 16, that's the first time he's done that. But I have
a tape of him doing exactly the same thing at a tournament in
Manila, chasing a blind three-iron shot on the 18th hole. It's
wrong when they write we should enjoy Sergio while we can,
before he changes. He won't change."

Time will tell. Certainly Palmer didn't. Wayne Gretzky, another
one who started with the nickname of the Kid, didn't. A few of
them don't. Garcia may never be that great, and he may not stay
that humble and likeable. But he's off to a pretty good start,
and don't be too shocked if you see him sprinting down some
fairway at the Country Club during that most emotional of
golfing competitions, the Ryder Cup. That old Brookline track
has a lot of blind shots, and the kid, of course, is still young.

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SMITH [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SMITH What a kick After his final-round charge in the PGA, Garcia will attract crowds worthy of a rock star in Brookline this week.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP The Shot Garcia's tree-side blast on the 16th hole was the hit of the PGA.COLOR PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON Quick wrists Garcia never consciously set out to emulate Hogan but ended up with a shallow swing plane just like the late great's.B/W PHOTO: JULES ALEXANDER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/ALLSPORT Paternal pride Victor (left) had to work as a caddie before turning pro, but he carried Sergio's bag gladly at the '98 U.S. Amateur.
"I've heard people say my swing's not perfect, and I know
that," says Garcia. "But golf is played a lot by feel."
"I learned from watching Seve," says Garcia, "that to hit
magic shots you have to see them in your imagination first."