Sunday 19 November 2017

The making of Sergio

Garcia has finally got his hands on a Major title, and it all kicked off for him in Ireland

Sergio Garcia holds the Masters trophy Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Sergio Garcia holds the Masters trophy Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Dermot Gilleece

While the golfing world grappled with the remarkable exploits of Tiger Woods in the 1997 US Masters, English officials were among those who continued to plan quietly for the future. So it was that an amateur international match was arranged against Spain at La Manga in early May.

Justin Rose had already captured the English Boys Stroke-play title and was two months short of his 17th birthday, when making his senior debut on that occasion. "I think he is better than Nick Faldo or Sandy Lyle were at that age," said skipper, Peter McEvoy.

Garcia after winning the 1999 Irish Open, his first professional victory Photo: Patrick Donald/SPORTSFILE
Garcia after winning the 1999 Irish Open, his first professional victory Photo: Patrick Donald/SPORTSFILE

By way of confirming this view, Rose went on to take three-and-a-half points out of a possible four. The half-point that eluded him was against an equally promising Spaniard by the name of Sergio Garcia.

Six weeks later at Portmarnock, I observed Garcia as a key member of the Spanish line-up who became the first Continentals to win the European Amateur Team Championship. This time, there was no clash with Rose, but Garcia had a 2 and 1 victory over Peter Lawrie in Spain's semi-final triumph over Ireland.

Here we have a sense of the long-time, competitive bond between Garcia and Rose, which was so much in evidence at Augusta National last Sunday. It embodied admiration and respect for the manner in which the other player's golfing skills had been shaped during the intervening years.

Almost a year prior to Portmarnock, Garcia had already competed in the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham where, after missing the cut, he stayed around long enough to meet the newly-crowned champion. Placing the claret jug in the youngster's hands, Tom Lehman told him: "Someday you will win this." Later the American added: "He's a cocky kid who thinks he can beat the world - and he might be right."

By that time, the Garcia legend had already been 14 years in the making. At their home in Castillon, near Valencia, his doting mother Consuelo was convinced that when Sergio was no more than a two-year-old he could swing a duster in the style of a champion golfer. That, and having a professional golfer, Victor, as a father, offers some insight into the level of expectation which dominated the youngster's upbringing.

Yet he seemed to be coping admirably when, as the British Amateur champion, he returned here in 1998 on a sponsor's invitation for the Murphy's Irish Open. Effectively, he was treading the same path as compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal, who held the same title when invited to the Irish Open at Royal Dublin in 1985.

The prodigious talent which had Garcia playing off scratch as a 13-year-old prompted comparisons with such luminaries as Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Ireland's Ronan Rafferty: Rory McIlroy was still a diminutive nine-year-old at that stage. When informed that Nicklaus had won 18 Major titles, Garcia replied: "Phew! That's probably too many. But I think that 30 years ago, for the very good player it was probably easier to win."

Towards the end of the first day of the 1998 Irish Open, Victor Garcia sat on a stone ledge outside the Druids Glen locker-room, relaying the news to the family back in Spain. The lad known reverentially as El Nino had just shot an opening round of 68 which could have been a few strokes better.

As a former caddie who became a teaching professional at the Mediterraneo Club de Campo, Victor knew the merit of his son's performance, though the teenager was more than capable of speaking for himself.

"I will probably turn professional after next year's US Masters," said the player, after drifting out to an eventual share of 60th place behind David Carter. More immediate was the Open at Royal Birkdale where his share of 28th place was some way behind Rose, who stunned observers by finishing fourth.

A year later, the Irish sponsor's investment paid off. Garcia returned to Druids Glen, this time as a professional. Now 19, his mood was noticeably chipper in that he had passed the written exam for his driving licence only the previous day. "I had only two questions wrong out of 40," he said proudly.

With Mark O'Meara's former caddie Jerry Higginbotham on his bag, he would be challenging for a title won three times by his idol, Seve Ballesteros. Indeed they would be facing each other as professionals, six years after Garcia had memorised a rather special party piece. While school-going friends were absorbed with Cervantes, he would readily quote passages from another illustrious Spaniard, as in the speech delivered by Ballesteros on winning a third Open at Lytham in 1988. "I was 13 at the time and learned it from a friend," he said. "Yes, every word."

As if by way of acknowledgement, the golfing genius - who would have been 60 last Sunday - said that week: "Sergio has everything that a champion needs. He is the best player of his age I have seen. More than anything else, he has the attitude to play out there and be successful. He plays to win."

Sadly, the beloved conquistador missed the cut and had departed the scene when his young compatriot made good on those expansive predictions. Garcia took that Irish Open by storm. In only his sixth appearance as a professional, he carded rounds of 69, 68, 67 and a glorious 64 to win by three strokes from Angel Cabrera, a future US Open and Masters champion.

It came two months after an eight-under-par 62 had delivered third place in the Byron Nelson Classic, which Higginbotham welcomed as "a little job security".

With a breakthrough victory only 10 weeks into his professional career, Garcia had the effrontery to remark: "They say the first win is always the hardest. Let's see if we can continue from here."

He had clearly developed a strong affection for Ireland when he came back to these parts a year later to defend the title, unavailingly, at Ballybunion. I met him taking a short break at the Old Head Links a few years ago and learned that he had been there with his family in 2007.

Victory in the Irish Open proved to be hugely significant in his early professional development. Apart from delivering a Ryder Cup debut at Brookline in September 1999, it provided the confidence for a remarkable performance in the PGA Championship at Medinah.

That was when he became something of a golfing sensation while challenging Woods for the title. "When he hit that shot at 16, he captured America's imagination," said the then US Ryder Cup skipper, Ben Crenshaw. "It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on a golf course." This, of course, was the famous six-iron from the base of a tree, followed by boyish skips up the fairway to see where the ball had landed.

"I got to shake his hand for the first time earlier this year," Crenshaw added. "He came over and looked at me with that innocent face and said, 'Mr Crenshaw, this is the first time I meet you. If I play well enough on the PGA Tour, would you pick me on your Ryder Cup team?' He is so endearing. How could you not love this kid?"

Television audiences clearly agreed, given record viewing figures for the PGA - up 26 per cent on the previous year. And Garcia went on to have a stunning debut in the Ryder Cup before returning to Europe and victory in the German Masters in Cologne.

A young star had been born. And given that the Masters was his 29th tournament victory worldwide, including the 2008 Players Championship, it seems churlish to talk of underachieving.

Yet you feel he would have won more, but for temperamental flaws which caused Padraig Harrington to view him as a "very sore loser". Nor was he helped by unhappy dealings with the fair sex, including a particularly traumatic break -up with Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan-Leigh, in 2009.

It is not uncommon for professional sportspeople to become emotionally crippled from constant deference. With the help of his fiancée, Angela Akins, however, Garcia seems to have belatedly come out the other side. Either way, I found it profoundly moving to see him on his knees on the 18th green at Augusta National last Sunday, curiously caressing the turf with a closed fist. As if to say: "I didn't realise it, but you're the one I've really wanted."

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