Talk Of The Town Sergio Garcia added personality, controversy and celebrity to the mix at Bethpage, creating a buzz with the New York fans that often came back to zap him

June 23, 2002

Three years ago you wanted to adopt him. He was the Kid, El Nino
and a breath of fresh air. At the 1999 PGA Championship at
Medinah he hit an impossible shot from behind a tree root with
his eyes closed, then ran excitedly across the fairway and
jumped up to see where the ball went, just as a kid would do. It
was cute. He was 19 and having way too much fun, while also
giving Tiger Woods a bit of a scare. That week, at that moment,
Sergio Garcia became a star.

Last week you wanted to spank him. He was the Baby, El Whino, a
blast of hot air. When the Black course at Bethpage kicked his
butt during a rainy, raw second round, he blamed others,
including Woods and the USGA, which was just what a kid would
do. It wasn't pretty. He was 22 and having no fun at the 102nd
U.S. Open, at which he gave Woods another mild scare. At that
moment Garcia was in danger of going from hero to villain, like
a pro wrestler with a suddenly new script.

Welcome to New York, kid. You should've seen this coming.
Actually, Garcia did. Asked about the New York fans before the
Open, he said, "They like to talk. There's no doubt about that.
That's just the way New Yorkers are."

They don't just like to talk, Sergio. They like to talk back, as
the catcalls--"C'mon, show us your waggle!" "Your girlfriend has
more majors than you!"--showed.

Woods stole the Open trophy, Phil Mickelson stole the hearts of
the fans, and Garcia stole the headlines last week. The truth
is, though, that even while Garcia was coming off as a superbrat
and the crowds weren't sure whether to love him, hate him or
heckle him, the Open wouldn't have been nearly as interesting
without him. He brought personality, controversy and celebrity
(especially since girlfriend Martina Hingis followed him every
step of the way).

Everyone hoped that someone would make Woods work for the second
leg of the Grand Slam, and a few players tried. Some of them
were surprises, such as whatever-happened-to types like
44-year-old Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner who took
advantage of a special exemption offered by the stunningly
prescient USGA to shoot his lowest score (a four-under 66) in an
Open in the third round and tie for fifth, and the quiet Jeff
Maggert, 38, who had beaten Woods en route to the 1999 World
Match Play title but had barely been heard from since. Maggert
found his old seamless swing, shot a 68 in the third round and
finished third.

Some of the challengers were the usual suspects. Mickelson, as
usual, showed up at another major with his A game but--Holy
Bruce Crampton!--was the runner-up in the Open for the second
time in four years. Then there was Garcia, who has the chutzpah
to take on Woods but not the patience or the putting stroke. He
was four shots back going into the final round and failed to
make a move, struggling to a 74 and a fourth-place finish even
while Woods faltered a bit with a closing 72. Garcia should've
paid closer attention to the preround advice given to him by his
father and coach, Victor: "No putts, no possible to make birdies."

This Open qualified as a learning experience for Garcia. The
Spaniard has a chance to be to Woods what Johnny Miller or Lee
Trevino or Tom Watson was to Jack Nicklaus. Garcia won the first
PGA Tour event of the season, the Mercedes Championships, and
followed with a win at the European tour's Spanish Open a few
months later. Also a contender at the Masters--he wound up
eighth, eight shots behind Woods--Garcia has made a convincing
case that he has inherited the mantle of 38-year-old Colin
Montgomerie as the second-best player never to have won a major,
a label that's hardly a worry for a 22-year-old.

Like Montgomerie, Garcia antagonized the crowd while suffering a
bout of spikes-in-mouth disease. On Friday, Woods played in the
morning session, which proved to be a break. Rain and wind swept
in early in the round, but Woods played well, shooting a
two-under 68 even though he had to turn his baseball cap
backward while he putted so that water wouldn't drip off the
brim and distract him. Garcia had an afternoon start and got the
brunt of worse weather. The rain and wind intensified, and the
temperature dropped enough that the players could see their
breath most of the afternoon. Garcia struggled to a 74 and
afterward vented in made-to-order sound bites. Here are the
highlights, ranked in order of churlishness (with accompanying
commentary, where appropriate).

1. "If Tiger Woods had been out there, I think [play] would have
been called." (Wrong. We play real golf, said USGA types, who
cited ample reasons for continuing.)

2. "Do we have to be swimming before play is stopped?"

3. "If you get the luck of getting the good side of the draw,
like somebody seems to do in these tournaments, and you're the
best player in the world and you make a lot of putts, that's
tough to beat." (And having a bikini-model girlfriend is not
fair either.)

4. "The people have to realize we're trying as hard as we can
out there, and sometimes they make stupid comments. They don't
make those comments to the bigger players. Maybe they're afraid
of them." (Mom always liked you best.)

5. Regarding the meaning of the gesture he made at the 16th hole
to the fans who loudly counted the number of waggles he made
before pulling the trigger on his approach shot--a gallery
practice that's sure to catch on: "It was like, shut up, I'm
trying to get something going here." (Funny, they thought he
flipped them off.)

6. Asked if the gesture was a fist: "Yeah, sort of." (So it was
the finger.)

Recognizing a whiner when they see one, the New York crowd
dropped the hammer on Garcia the following day. Hecklers shouted
things like, "Hey, Sergio, don't step in any puddles!" "Your
girlfriend isn't as good-looking as Tiger's!" "It's cloudy, you
better go in!" and they dubbed him El Waggle.

Recognizing a bonehead move when he saw one, Garcia gamely took
his lumps, smiled and played on. After one barrage of comments
from the gallery, he gestured to the fans, Come on, keep it
coming. "It wasn't too bad until the end, when the beer started
flowing," said Maggert, who was paired with Garcia. "It got
pretty rowdy on the last four holes."

To his credit, Garcia rose to the moment and played his most
inspired golf of the tournament. He made five birdies on
Saturday, coming tantalizingly close to a hole in one at the
14th, and fired a 67 that got him into Sunday's final twosome
with Woods. Garcia also showed some admirable maturity. He left
a note of apology in Woods's locker before the round and
publicly admitted he'd been wrong. "It was rough out there, but
I'm actually glad it happened," Garcia said. "I did it to
myself. Sometimes we say things we shouldn't. Sometimes I'm my
worst opponent."

That was the case on Sunday, too. Woods three-putted the first
two holes, allowing Garcia to close to within two shots. But
Garcia never got any closer as he three-putted the 3rd hole and
failed to birdie the par-5 4th. "Tiger is human, and he showed
it today," Garcia said. "I had my chance and didn't take it. If
you don't take your chances on Sunday when you're four shots
behind, you don't win against a guy like him."

Later, in front of the clubhouse as night settled in, Garcia
reflected on his wild week. "It was very positive; it made me
stronger mentally," he said. "Hopefully, one day I'll be able to
say that I was a U.S. Open champion." He smiled. "I'm really
starting to like this championship."

Funny, some New Yorkers feel the same way about the Kid.

Read a new installment of Gary Van Sickle's Underground Golfer
each Monday on golfonline.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MAURICE HARMON TEED OFF Garcia got on the wrong side of the Bethpage fans by complaining about the weather, Woods and their waggle counting. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HIGH JINX Garcia's shot-watching leap was more charming at the '99 PGA. COLOR PHOTO: JEFF CHRISTENSEN/REUTERS CHAMPING AT THE BIT The USGA timed its special exemption just right for the 44-year-old Faldo, who finished a surprising fifth. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS FORGOTTEN MAN No one gave Maggert a chance, even though he had beaten Woods head-to-head in 1999.

"Sometimes we say things we shouldn't," said Garcia. "Sometimes
I'm my worst opponent."

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)