NOT so long ago, the very thought of Sergio Garcia having to play a 36-hole qualifier for his place in a Major championship would have seemed outlandish.
Almost as preposterous, indeed, as Garcia assuming the role of European Ryder Cup vice-captain by age 30, as he did at Celtic Manor last October.
Yet an about-face last weekend by the golf artist formerly known as El Nino could turn out to be one of the most significant decisions of his career.
Second only to Tiger Woods in the world rankings 27 months ago, Garcia has crash-dived to 75th -- since he's no longer in the elite top 50, he needed to qualify for next week's US Open.
Initially, the Spaniard said he'd not take part in sectional qualifying -- then changed his mind.
And after shooting 68 and 67 over 36 holes at Tunica National in Mississippi on Monday, Garcia won his place at Congressional in a dramatic seven-man play-off.
So little has gone right for him in recent times, this small taste of success might be just the catalyst Garcia, now 31, needs to reignite his career.
Unable to win anywhere since November 2008, Garcia's morale hit rock bottom as he missed the cut at last year's US PGA, so he took a complete 10-week break from golf.
Exasperatingly, he then failed to make the weekend in his return event (the Castellon Masters which Garcia himself hosts). Since then, however, the Spaniard has not missed the cut in 18 outings.
Garcia has been striking the ball well recently and putting capably with a new 'pen' grip, but has found it difficult to string four good rounds together.
For example, after opening with sparkling back-to-back 66s at the recent Byron Nelson, he then hit the wall at the weekend, slumping into a tie for 20th on three-over after following a 74 on Saturday with a final-round 77, which included six bogeys, a double and just one birdie.
There's not a lot wrong with his golf, but Garcia's spirit is weak.
While he had initially baulked at the idea of putting himself through the wringer of US Open sectional qualifying with such a strong likelihood of disappointment, actually making it must have done his morale a world of good.
So, Garcia's performance at this weekend's FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis should be watched with interest.
WHY would anyone name a golf tournament after St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes?
Simple ... the annual PGA Tour stop in Memphis, Tennessee, has long been significant fund-raiser for the nearby St Jude Children's Research Hospital, a renowned treatment centre for desperately sick kids from all over the US.
Clearly, it would be in poor taste to draw glib analogies between this week's event and the efforts of Garcia and Padraig Harrington to get their playing careers back in order at TPC Southwind.
Indeed, Harrington could hardly be more upbeat about his future, despite a stop-start season in which his efforts have been undermined by niggling injuries.
Though he has dropped out of the world's elite top 50 for the first time in 11 years, Harrington relishes today's return to action in Memphis and the opportunity to sharpen up for next week's US Open.
After missing the recent BMW PGA at Wentworth, Harrington played 36 holes of links golf last week at British Open venue Royal St George's and its neighbour in Sandwich, Princes.
He then offered further evidence of his fitness in yesterday's pre-tournament Pro-Am.
St Jude Classic, Sky Sports 2, 8.0
IN the short time Italian golf prodigy Matteo Manassero (18) and Ireland's Ryan McGuigan have been together they've become one of the most talked about player-caddie partnerships on the European Tour.
McGuigan teamed up with Manassero at last year's Dubai Desert Classic and in the 23 events they're been together, the remarkable young gentleman from Verona has made Tour history on the double. Last October, at age 17, Manassero became Europe's youngest winner at the Castello Masters. Then, he followed up in April by whipping the Malaysian Open title from under Rory McIlroy's nose, making him the only player to win twice on Tour before his 18th birthday.
This week's BMW Italian Open at Turin's Royal Park Course marks the first anniversary of Manassero turning professional and he took the opportunity to single out Coleraine caddie McGuigan (31) for special praise.
"Ryan and I just get along very well and we've done the job well together now for 18 months or so," he said. "Everything I have learned on the European Tour, I've learned with Ryan by my side.
"He's good at keeping me calm, but most of all, Ryan is there to give me the advice I need. He's also got that laid-back Irish nature as he is always joking with me."
It's no joking matter that in 12 months, Manassero has moved to world No 30, has banked over €1m in priz-money and has acquired a manager to look after his affairs. He also speaks five languages.
Though he's yet to own a car, still lives at home and will take another year to complete his schooling, Manassero will bring McGuigan with him on a private jet to Maryland for next week's US Open -- high-flyers, indeed!
Italian Open, Sky Sports 1,10.30/3.30
SLIEVE RUSSELL's Curtis Cup ace Leona Maguire solved a crooked driving problem at Royal Portrush by switching to her three-wood during a sparkling four-under-par 70 second qualifying round for a level-par aggregate of 148 in the Ladies' British Amateur Open Championship yesterday.
The precocious 16-year-old, who finished tied for 18th place, was demented on the Dunluce links during opening day of the 36-hole qualifier, posting a frustrating four-over-par 78.
Leona decided to discard the big wood yesterday and it paid rich dividends -- especially on the front side where she bagged four birdies and made no mistakes.
Leona's twin sister Lisa finished best of the home hopefuls in a share of 12th place, following a second day return of two-under 72 for a one-under aggregate of 147.
Also on level par and into today's head-to-head combat is Irish champion Danielle McVeigh, even though the Royal County Down member had to battle for a 76 in her second round.
Spain's Camilla Hedberg leads the way on eight-under.
Other Irish players who made it through to the match play were: Stephanie Meadows (Royal Portrush), Charlene Reid (Royal Portrush), Deirdre Smith (County Louth), Victoria Bradshaw (Bangor) and Emma O'Driscoll (Ballybunnion).
Smith will face Lisa Maguire in today's match-play phase.