Golf: The prodigy and the patriot

Talismen of the tee: El Nino a breath of fresh air for Europe as Stewart raises a storm for the US; Surge of the sublime Sergio; Tim Glover says Seve's heir will have to grow up quickly next week
IN A sleepy village somewhere in Spain, a kid who should be at nursery will be doing something precocious with a golf ball and a bit of driftwood washed up on the beach. He is a prodigy, blessed with gifts that already separate him from the rest. By the age of 10 he will be supplementing his pocket money by thrashing members at his local club; by 15 he will win the British Amateur Championship, the prelude to a career that will take the world by storm.

It is the natural order. First there was Seve Ballesteros, then Jose Maria Olazabal and now Sergio Garcia. All were born and raised within a pitching wedge of golf courses; they lived, slept and ate golf and all have a sublime short game. They have something else in common, a wildness off the tee that adds to their appeal. If they hit it straight every time it would be boring and there's nothing boring about the three conquistadors.

When Garcia gave Tiger Woods a run for his money during the final round of the US PGA at Medinah last month, curling a shot from behind a tree on to the green, Ballesteros, watching the tournament at home on TV, was on his feet yelling at the screen. Houdini-like escapes were one of Ballesteros's specialities. At least they were when he was younger. If he was stymied behind an oak now, he would ask for a ruling or a chainsaw.

In a vintage season for the four majors, the US PGA not only pointed the way for the millennium but elevated Garcia into an all-American Spanish hero. Woods led by five strokes with seven holes to play and was pegged back to one. It was the way Garcia injected the adrenalin that swung the crowd behind him. At the 13th, after making an 18ft putt, Garcia looked back at Woods on the tee. "I wanted him to know he had to play well to win," Garcia said. Woods double-bogeyed the hole.

It was what happened at the 16th that nearly brought the house down. After his drive landed at the base of the tree, Garcia sliced a six-iron 190 yards on to the green. "I opened my stance and took a full swing. I closed my eyes, went backwards in case the ball rebounded off the tree and when I opened my eyes, it was flying towards the green." El Nino, as the 19-year-old is known, ran after it like he was chasing an ice- cream van. While Woods was getting some stick from the Chicago crowd - "$1,000 says you slice it into the water" - Garcia's name echoed around the stands.

Ballesteros made a similar impression when he was runner-up to Johnny Miller in the Open at Birkdale, 23 years ago. But neither Ballesteros nor Olazabal, despite sharing four Masters, took to America. America has taken to Garcia, and he seems at home there, although he misses Real Madrid. "The first time we took Sergio to the US, he was 13," Jose Marquina, a family friend, said. "We wanted to test him against tough opposition in conditions he was unfamiliar with. He played in the Palmetto Junior Classic and beat a field of 16-year-olds by 14 shots. We knew then we had something special."

That special something is now in the hands of Mark McCormack's IMG, although Marquina will oversee El Nino's "special projects," like playing tennis with Anna Kournikova. Pre-IMG, Garcia signed only two deals, with Adidas and Titleist, and received $16m when he turned pro only five months ago. "Sergio and his family are not interested in money," Marquina said. "His value is going to rise."

This is good news for IMG, whose image took a battering when Nick Faldo and Greg Norman deserted them. Now they are back on top and in a position to manipulate and exploit a rivalry between Garcia and Woods. It promises to be as big a draw as the long-running duel between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus which began 40 years ago.

"Sergio and I play a very similar way," Woods said. "We are both aggressive, we hit the ball a long way and we like to be creative. One of the things I like about him is that he can take a bad shot and turn it into a positive. It's neat to see him wear his emotions on his sleeve. The media were all over me for that but hopefully they won't get on him. He's a wonderful kid."

Woods is beginning to sound like a 23-year-old uncle. Nobody heard Arnie describe Big Jack as a wonderful kid. By the time IMG have finished with him, Garcia will be wearing more than his emotions on his sleeve. First, though, the Ryder Cup, where the two stable-mates could be going head- to-head in the singles, depending on the draw.

Under normal circumstances, the youngest player to appear in the cup could expect some guidance, but such has been Garcia's impact that the onus is on him to perform big time at Brookline. He may only have been eight when Faldo was runner-up to Curtis Strange in the US Open at Brookline in 1988, but Garcia is one of Mark James's crack troops. Not only is Europe stuffed with Ryder rookies, but only two of the team, Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, have played in the cup in America.

It's a pity this one has come too late for Ballesteros, whom Garcia describes as a "second father". Nevertheless, Ballesteros has been marking the prodigy's card and there are two other Spaniards in the team, Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez, Seve's right-hand man two years ago.

The pairings of the fourballs and foursomes will be as interesting as the draw for the singles but not, perhaps, as interesting as which way the Bostonian crowd will jump. At Medinah the Chicagoans appreciated the way Garcia played and at the same time made Woods aware of their feelings over the Ryder Cup payments controversy. It is doubtful whether Ben Crenshaw's team will get anything less than the full red, white and blue carpet treatment for an event they haven't won in six years and which is the nearest thing to golf with knuckle-dusters.

However, even Crenshaw sounds as if he's fallen under Garcia's spell. "He's absolutely electrifying," said the American captain. "He's charismatic and graceful. He's magic."

He's also fallible and human (he had to be consoled by his mother after Carnoustie chewed him up and spat him out in the Open) and liable to drive into Boston harbour.

"I've had a few good tournaments," Garcia said. "But I've got a long career ahead of me - that's when I have to prove I'm something else. At the moment I couldn't ask for more. If somebody had said I was going to be first in the Irish Open, second at Loch Lomond, second in the US PGA, miss the cut in the Open by hundreds and make the Ryder Cup team, I'd have taken it."

Don't tell them Garcia is coming. They already know.