Golf: Garcia cast as new golden boy

Victory keeps Spanish prodigy on course to become youngest European Ryder Cup golfer.

TEN MONTHS ago, when the qualifying for this September's European Ryder Cup team began, it would have been fanciful to expect Sergio Garcia to make the trip to Boston. It was, though, a gloriously intriguing possibility.

Now, after Garcia's maiden professional victory in his sixth start - the Murphy's Irish Open - the only question appears to be whether the 19- year-old Spaniard will qualify automatically or be selected as a wild card by the team captain, Mark James.

Picking such a youthful rookie is one of the many subjects on which the Yorkshireman has been non-committal in recent months. Rule nothing in, nothing out, has been his motto. Age, James has suggested, however, will be of minor importance and if he needed any more convincing over Garcia's ability under pressure, the last-round 65 at Druids Glen should have proved the point.

One man who needed no further convincing about Garcia was James's American counterpart, Ben Crenshaw. "A kid like this is extra special," Crenshaw said. "There is no question in my mind he'll be in the European team."

Colin Montgomerie, Europe's No 1, was equally unequivocal. "As I have already said, just put him out with [Jose Maria] Olazabal and let him run." The only rider, the Scot added on Sunday evening, concerned the fitness of the Masters champion: "As long as Olazabal's hand is okay."

Olazabal, who hopes to play in the Open next week after breaking his hand hitting a wall during the US Open, formed an inspirational Ryder Cup partnership with compatriot Seve Ballesteros. At Muirfield Village in 1987, Seve was the master and Ollie the tiro. Even if Olazabal and Garcia do not click to the same extent, the youngster will have gained valuable experience for the future.

Nick Faldo was 20 when he made his debut in 1977, a record Garcia could break this September. He could deny Faldo a wild card unless he qualifies automatically. "To make the team on points I think I have to win one more tournament. That's really difficult," Garcia said.

Garcia's win lifted him to 18th in the standings but few of those between him and the top 10 are in top form. He has plenty of big-money events left, starting tomorrow with the Standard Life Invitational at Loch Lomond and then the Open at Carnoustie, plus in the following month, the European Open and the USPGA.

As for being a wild card, Garcia said: "If Mark James thinks I am good enough and that I can help the team, I would love to play. There is a long time until September so we'll see."

Only three men have been younger when winning for the first time on the European Tour. The South African Dale Hayes was 18 when he won the 1971 Spanish Open, while both Seve Ballesteros and Paul Way were 19. Ballesteros, a hero and mentor to Garcia, won the Dutch Open in 1976 the week after finishing runner-up to Johnny Miller in the Open.

"I have also won at 19 but I have to do a lot of things to be like Seve," Garcia said. "I am certainly going to try but I am not going to focus on doing the same as Seve. I am just going to go out and try to win again. If it is this week, great. But if not I'll keep waiting."

Tiger Woods won his fifth and seventh starts as a pro but after an initial spurt, which included winning the 1997 Masters, took time to develop his game. It seems to have worked as he regained the world No 1 spot from David Duval on Sunday with victory in the Western Open. The three-stroke win over Canada's Mike Weir was Woods' third in four events.

Garcia played some memorable shots over the back nine on Sunday. There was the three wood on to the green at the par-five 11th, the second across water from thick rough to four feet at the 15th and his approach to the last for a closing birdie.

Then there was his putting. Nicknamed "El Nino" - "the Kid" - Garcia made holing 30- and 40-footers look like child's play. "I have never putted like this in my life," he said. "My putter was crazy."

But the manner of victory was the most impressive aspect. Angel Cabrera, who was only one behind with three to play, never gave up pressing the youngster. Over the inward half, the pair shared eight birdies and did not drop a shot.

"When I knew I was the leader," Garcia explained, "I said, `keep it going, stay calm and try to make some birdies and we'll see'."

What we saw was history in the making.

THE RISE OF SERGIO GARCIA

Born: Sergio Garcia Fernandez in Castellon, Spain on 9 Jan 1980. Lives: Borriol, Spain.

Hobbies: Real Madrid, computer games.

Parents: Consuelo and Victor (professional at Mediterraneo GC). Brother: Victor (22, handicap 1). Sister: Mar (15, handicap 4).

1993: Spanish Under-13 champion.

1994: Topolino World Junior champion. 1995: European champion (the youngest), European Young Master.

1996: Third at World Amateur Team Championship, Open debut.

1997: British boys champion, Spanish champion, European Masters champion, French champion, Catalonia Open champion (pro event), second in European Amateur.

1998: British amateur champion, US Amateur semi-finalist, European Masters champion, made all seven halfway cuts on European Tour, 28th in Open, record total by amateur on European Tour (277 Spanish Open).

1999: Handicap plus 5.6 (lowest in Europe), first European to win silver medal as leading amateur at US Masters, turned professional, third on US Tour debut, first in fourth European Tour event (Irish Open).

Total victories: More than 70 (he has lost count).

PROFESSIONAL RECORD

22-25 April: Spanish Open (25th place, 279 (-9)

13-16 May: Byron Nelson Classic 3rd 269 (-11)

21-24 May: Deutsche Bank Open 20th 285 (-3)

28-31 May: Volvo PGA 19th 281 (-7)

3-6 June: Memorial Tournament 11th 282 (-6)

1-4 July: Irish Open 1st 268 (-16).

YOUNGEST WINNERS ON EUROPEAN TOUR

18yrs 290 days: Dale Hayes (1971 Spanish Open)

19 yrs 121 days: Seve Ballesteros (1976 Dutch Open)

19 yrs 149 days: Paul Way (1982 Dutch Open)

19 yrs 176 days: Sergio Garcia (1999 Irish Open)

20 yrs 97 days: Bernard Gallacher (1969 Schweppes PGA)

20 yrs 217 days: Jose Maria Olazabal (1986 European Masters)

20 yrs 305 days: Peter Baker (1988 B&H International)

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