GEOFF PERCIVAL: Sergio Garcia’s way beginning to pay

To be sure, Sergio Garcia’s fifth major championship round as a major champion didn’t go quite as well as he would have hoped. 

A score of 73, three-over par, in the opening round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale has him already eight shots off the lead. Still, for the 37-year-old Spaniard the post-Open future looks a whole lot brighter than his prospects of adding a Claret Jug to his green jacket.

A week from tomorrow, Garcia will be a married man, far removed from the angst that has been such a feature of his highly successful career. Clearly a tortured soul, the 2017 Masters champion laboured long under a widely-held impression that his was ultimately going to be a talent largely unfulfilled.

Yes, there were victories around the world. His Ryder Cup record in Europe’s colours is also something of which he can be proud. But when the history books were being written, one thing was glaringly absent. For all his flair for the game, Garcia lacked the ultimate affirmation of his obvious gifts.

Not anymore though. Which is how it should be. He stands out. He always has. And only a glimpse is enough to convince. The sight of Sergio Garcia hitting a golf ball with a club not a putter makes it immediately obvious he is possessed of a rare quality, capable of shot-making feats far beyond those of even a well above average tour professional.

Blessed with the innately educated hands common to every great ball-striker, the six-time Ryder Cup player’s shots begin their flights with a distinctively impressive “crunch” at impact. It is a sound few are able to create with such consistency.

Listen and learn.

“Tee-to-green, Sergio is exceptional, even at the highest level,” confirms former US Open champion Graeme McDowell. “He’s a phenomenal driver of the ball and a great iron player. He’s old school in the way he flights the ball so many different ways. He is one of a dying breed. He has all the shots and great imagination. If a fade is required he will hit that fade. If a draw is the shot, that’s what he hits. That’s not the modern way, but it’s his way.”

Around the greens, Garcia may not be quite the equal of his fellow Spaniards, the late Seve Ballesteros and former Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. But he is close. Give that extraordinary pair of chipping and pitching geniuses 10 out of 10 and their younger compatriot is at least an 8.5, maybe a nine. Put it this way: The flair, touch and imagination Garcia routinely displays is worthy of any spectator’s close attention. Watch and learn.

Still, calmness and authority under pressure — on and off the course — are not attributes which Garcia has always owned. His career is dotted with incidents and afflictions that have surely affected his ability to compete consistently at the highest level.

There was the extended re-gripping of the club at address that was the object of much ridicule and scorn just over a decade ago.

There was the petulant shoe-kicking performance during a now far-off World Match Play Championship at Wentworth.

There was the prolonged depression — leading to a self-imposed sabbatical from the game — in the wake of the break-up of his relationship with Greg Norman’s daughter.

There was the public display of self-pity that followed the lipping-out of the eight-foot putt that would have won him the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie.

There was the obvious petulance and, it must be said, shocking breaches of basic etiquette over the closing holes at Oakland Hills in the 2008 USPGA Championship. (It is no coincidence that the eventual winner that day, Pádraig Harrington, for long enough had little good to say about Garcia).

There has been a succession of putting grips. Not quite Langer-esque in quantity, but enough to make abundantly clear Garcia’s struggles with the shortest club in his bag.

So it is that, for all his many victories, Garcia’s so-far 15-year old professional life is seen by many as more disappointment than triumph.

His was hardly an unique situation, of course. Winning one of the four biggest events in the game inevitably involves a wee bit of good fortune in addition to God-given talent. And Garcia was far from alone in his frustration. Others — Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie spring immediately to mind — almost as naturally gifted, are currently in similarly exasperating positions. Clearly, it is more than possible to have an enormously successful and lucrative career without getting lucky in the right week and place.

Still, for one as extravagantly gifted as Garcia, it was a perplexing state of affairs. A winner at every level en route to the pro ranks — he was British Boys champion a year before he lifted the Amateur crown — Garcia was the ultimate ‘can’t miss’ kid.

“As a teenager Sergio was so advanced,” recalls former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who lost in the quarter-final of the 1998 British Amateur at Muirfield, an event eventually won by the precocious Spaniard.

“It was amazing how good he was. He hit it hard and well. It was ‘man against boys’ stuff, even though he was the boy playing against men. It was incredible how good he was. He had all the amateurs in Europe spooked back in the late 90s.

“They knew that if Sergio was there they were playing for second.”

He hasn’t reached that state of supremacy again, of course. And given the galaxy of talent at the top of the game right now, such primacy is unlikely, especially as Garcia nears his 40th birthday. But the biggest hurdle has been cleared, to the point where it will come as a sizeable surprise if he does not add at least one more major to his lengthy list of accomplishments.

Just maybe not this week.


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