Golf: The Masters - Garcia more than just a gifted amateur

Teenage Spaniard has ambitions beyond just making the cut. By Andy Farrell
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time the British Amateur champion made the cut at the Masters, Sergio Garcia was not born. But the 19-year-old Spaniard is hoping to succeed where others, including his compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal, failed in playing all 72 holes for the first time since Peter McEvoy in 1978.

That is not the limit of a player who is expected to turn professional in time for the Spanish Open in two weeks' time. Garcia is hoping to match Matt Kuchar's achievement in earning a return trip.

While Kuchar, the 1997 US Amateur champion, did so by finishing 21st last year, the bar has been raised and Garcia must aim for the top 16. "If everything goes right, maybe I can get in the top 16," Garcia said. "That would be a good tournament."

Garcia has the lowest handicap ever recorded in Europe of +5.4. Having won everything in the amateur game, he has spent the last year playing European and Nike tour events, making 20 cuts in 27 events, the first at the age of 15. He already has one pro title to his name, the 1997 Catalan PGA.

Known as "El Nino" - the "gifted child" - Garcia is the son of a club professional from Castellon, near Valencia. His world travels have been supported by a family friend, Jose Marquina, who is based in Miami.

Blessed with the modern power game off the tee, Garcia has also inherited the flair and imagination in shot-making and short game skills of Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros. "Seve has helped me at a lot of tournaments," Garcia said. "He has been like almost a second dad."

As well as practice rounds at Augusta with Ballesteros, Garcia's preparations included playing in the Georgia Cup in Atlanta against his counterpart as US Amateur champion, Hank Kuehne, winning 6 and 4. Kuehne is thought to be a longer hitter than Tiger Woods and, like the 1997 Masters champion, hit a pitching wedge for his second shot at the 15th in practice.

Kuehne has shaved his head ever since undergoing rehabilitation for alcoholism four years ago. He admitted himself to the programme after being involved in a 65 mph car accident, in which fortunately no one was killed. Due to his rehab, he missed the 1995 Masters in which his elder brother, Trip, played. Trip, the 1994 US Amateur runner-up to Woods, will caddie for Hank this year. Watching will be their sister, Kelli, a US Amateur champion in her own right and now an LPGA Tour player.

A student at Georgia Tech, Kuchar became a favourite with the gallery for his beaming smile. It was with the same countenance that he achieved a 14th-place finish at the US Open and, showing a taste for the big time, his stroke average is better in PGA Tour events than on the collegiate circuit.

"It's still very difficult to believe what the Masters brought me," said Kuchar, who was treated in hospital on Tuesday for dehydration and flu- like symptoms, but should be able to play today. "I was pretty much an unknown going into the tournament but, when I left, it seemed everyone in the world knew who I was," he said.

No amateur has ever won the Masters, but that has not stopped Garcia dreaming. "The amateur field is pretty strong this year, so maybe we can do something good," he said. "It would be very difficult, but I think it is possible for someone to win. It would take the week of your life playing great, putting great, doing everything right."