Golf: The Open - Sergio makes a name for himself

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The Independent Online
HIS BALL was inches from the high sloping lip of a deep bunker. Seve's was a hand's width away, both of them 40 feet from the pin. The Open champion of 1979, 1984 and 1988 stepped up to give a quick master- class in the art of feathering the ball pin-high from such an awkward position. But Sergio Garcia didn't have that option. He was too close to the edge.

To play the ball right-handed, he would have needed to anchor his feet on the steep face of the bunker and shorten his grip. Impossible, probably, without an abseiling harness. So he grabbed his 60-degree sand wedge, spun it round so that the hosel, the lower part of the shaft, was above the club's face, and played the shot left-handed. The club may have been upside down, but the ball still lifted in a graceful arc and ran to a halt 15 feet past the hole. And then, because this was a practice round and you never know when you might need such a trick again, he did it a second time. To within a yard.

Sergio Garcia, in case you haven't been paying attention, is the new sensation of international golf. He is 19 years old, he won the Irish Open two weeks ago, he finished second at Loch Lomond last week, and his dew-fresh talent is already being spoken of as a vital addition to Europe's Ryder Cup team this autumn. And what happened at the 15th hole at Carnoustie yesterday morning provided a perfect example of the quality that makes him, in Payne Stewart's estimation, "a special man".

So Sergio, would you do the same thing on Sunday, with the chips down on the final stretch of the Open Championship?

"Probably. I play a lot of left-handed golf on my home course, just for the practice, and because it's good for my back."

In fact, he told us, he has played four nine-hole rounds of left-handed golf. For the record, his scores were 53, 48, 45 and 42. With, you will be relieved to learn, left-handed clubs.

Sergio played Carnoustie yesterday morning in the company of Severiano Ballesteros and the promising young Welshman, David Park. It was a purposeful but genial group, accompanied by a small entourage including Sergio's parents. And it produced some marvellous golf in a breeze so stiff that it set the scaffolding pipes of the temporary grandstand overlooking the 4th green singing like a giant Aeolian harp.

Ballesteros's dash and Park's elegance made a good contrast with Sergio, who is nobody's idea of a stylist but hits the ball with impressive power and a marvellous sense of touch and trajectory. Playing into the teeth of a gale on the massive 6th, which is known with deadly Scottish understatement as "Long", he tamed a 578-yard par five with, in his own words, "a perfect driver, a perfect two-iron to a 12-yard-wide fairway with a creek on the right and rough like this" - he held his hand waist-high - "on the left. Then I hit a seven-iron from 125 yards. So you can tell it's really tough if you don't put the ball on the fairway."

But if you can put your seven-iron to within 12 feet, as he did, you are on for a birdie of heroic proportions.

There were times yesterday when, like any mortal, he failed to stay on fairways so narrow and twisting that they resembled bobsleigh runs. Mostly, however, his clenched stance, heaving takeaway, slashing swing, blinding hand-speed and perfect timing sent the ball straight and true enough to suggest that the young Spaniard can do some damage to bigger reputations this week.

One thing he will not be is overawed. Before turning pro in April, he had been playing in professional tournaments as an amateur for two years. "I'm not afraid to be here," he said yesterday. "That's why I played those pro events, because I didn't want to be afraid now. And that's what it did."

No one is better qualified to recognise the effect than Tiger Woods, who won his first major as a professional at the age of 21 two years ago. "Some of the kids who are turning pro now haven't really won the tournaments to justify it," Woods remarked this week. "The only one I've seen that has is Sergio. He's played more professional tournaments than I did at that age. And he's played all around the world. So when he turned pro he was ready to go. He knew what to expect, and what he needed to do at this level. And he's doing it."

Among his elders, he seems to be admired as much for the manner as for the matter of his play. "I think it's great to see a kid with that charisma and personality," Greg Norman said yesterday. "He's a talent," Payne Stewart observed, "and what a nice young man he is. He's friendly, he's fun. He's just beaming with personality. He wants to learn. He's going to be around a long time. And he's not old enough to be nervous yet."

Ballesteros clearly enjoyed his company yesterday, as did the other great contemporary Spaniard on Tuesday. Jose Maria Olazabal had first met Sergio, he recollected, "three or four years ago. You could see that there was something special. He could hit the ball really long, and he had a great short game, but maybe the most impressive thing was the mental attitude. He doesn't show any fear whatsoever."

So Olazabal is showing a bit of fear on his behalf. "Keep it quiet," he counselled journalists. "You're making it really tough, you know. Why don't we calm down, let the guy develop his skills, and then we will have plenty of time to talk about it."

The young man himself displays no such qualms. "I want to make a statement," he announced yesterday before his press conference began. "If you don't mind, I'd like you to call me Sergio in the media if it is possible. It's what I'd like people to call me. When I go on a golf course, they say, `Hey, Mr Garcia!' I don't like that. I prefer, `Hey, Sergio, can you sign me this autograph?' It seems more familiar."

If he goes on like this, a lack of familiarity will be the least of his problems.