Jose Maria Olazabal says he still believes “very strongly” that Sergio Garcia will go on to major glory.
Garcia has not had a top-three finish in America or Europe since losing a four-shot lead and then a play-off to Padraig Harrington in last July’s Open at Carnoustie.
Even more of a surprise and a concern is that he has not won anywhere since 2005 – and while he still holds a place in the world’s top 15, one American reporter was prompted to write recently: “Sergio Garcia isn’t relevant any more.”
But heading into the Masters this week, Olazabal’s advice to his Ryder Cup partner of two years ago is straightforward – ’One, pay no attention to outsiders; two, you have the talent’.
“I believe he will win a major – I believe so very strongly,” said the double Masters champion, whose return to tournament golf after seven months out battling rheumatism has come just in time for him to be part of the Augusta action again.
“We saw last year he has the game. Obviously he is struggling with his putting, and it’s his weakest point at the moment. But to me, he’s an excellent player and he has to be patient.
“When he first came on tour he putted really well, and that was one of his strengths.
“He must get fed-up of people asking now. But he has to put all those things away and when anybody asks him about his putting just be polite.
“We all know he can play wonderfully well tee to green, and at the end of the day it’s down to making a putt here or there.”
Garcia turned professional at the age of 19 in 1999 after producing the best performance ever by a European amateur in the Masters – 38th place in the same week that Olazabal, having overcome crippling arthritis, won his second title.
Four months later, with a European Tour title to his name already, the prodigy was runner-up to Tiger Woods in the US PGA – and a month after that, he was the youngest-ever player in the Ryder Cup. Not only that, he won his first three matches.
It looked for all the world as if he might surpass the career of Seve Ballesteros, who won his first Open title at 22 and four of his five majors before his 28th birthday.
That is Garcia’s age now, though – and while there have been 13 top-10 finishes, the first win has still to come.
Olazabal’s first Masters triumph was in 1994, and the significance of that is that he was 28 and had had near-misses before.
Among seven top-10 finishes at that point were a third place in The Open at Muirfield in 1992 – the one where Nick Faldo pipped John Cook – and a second spot behind Ian Woosnam at Augusta in 1991.
That week Olazabal had taken a quadruple-bogey seven on the short sixth hole - but standing on the final tee he was joint leader with Woosnam and Tom Watson.
“I was in the second last group, with ’Woosie’ and Watson behind,” he recalls.
“I thought a par on the 18th was a good score but I was also thinking ’hit the driver and leave myself a nine-iron and I will have a better chance of maybe making three’.”
However, he bogeyed – and although Watson then double-bogeyed the hole, Woosnam made par to keep the title in British hands following Sandy Lyle’s win in 1988 and Faldo’s back-to-back triumphs.
“A couple of weeks later, Seve approached me and said ’next time, if you are in the same position, you will never hit the driver off the 18th again. All you have to do is take the bunkers out of play and the way you hit your irons you will make four’.”
As it turned out Olazabal had a cushion with a hole to play each time he won, beating Tom Lehman by two in 1994 and Davis Love by the same margin in 1999.
He still pays tribute to the part Ballesteros paid in his victories and is now happy to help Garcia in any way he can.
“I spent a lot of time with Seve practising before going to Augusta – and every day there. I remember him making clear that on that golf course the most important thing was to put the ball in the right area on the greens and not to go for the flag on every shot, even if it looks very tempting.” he said.
“When chipping around the green use all kind of shots, from sand wedge to nine-iron, seven-iron, putter even.
“Seve mentioned a few times that most likely I would have a chance to win. He gave me that confidence; he said it every time we went there. ’You will see, you will see’, he said. ’All you have to do is be patient – your time will come; be prepared’.
“I never had any doubts about approaching Seve for his advice or anything. I never hesitated – he was always there to give his opinion and support.
“With my lay-off, I’ve not had a chance to talk to Sergio since Carnoustie. But I think it has to come from him.
“He did a wonderful job of leading except for a little stretch on the front nine the last day, but he regrouped really well from that and hit a lot of great shots.
“On the last green he hit a good putt. Sometimes they go in; sometimes they don’t.”
So now we have another major and another chance for Garcia to show that he is not Colin Montgomerie Mark II ... a great talent for whom the tag ’nearly man’ was created when it comes to the majors.