Golf: The rookie who can inspire Europe to Ryder Cup heights

`What I have in mind right now is to help the European team to win the Cup, and I don't care if I'm going to play against Tiger or not'
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THE THING you notice about Sergio Garcia is that he plays with his head up. Not when he's making the shot, of course. He may be young, but he's not that unorthodox. You see it when he's moving around the course, down the fairway or across the green - or, as seems to happen with entertaining regularity, when he's negotiating an intrepid escape from a piece of the scenery. His head is raised, scanning the scene, searching for the lines of approach and attack.

It's a habit often visible in the very best players of just about all ball games, and it denotes a special kind of awareness that comes to someone so sure of his technique that he can give full rein to his sensory perception.

No wonder Sergio once dreamed of being Real Madrid's playmaker. It's that kind of instinct. With a golf club in his hand, he's like a young Di Stefano, simultaneously urgent and relaxed.

What he also has, at least at this early stage of his life, is a sense of humour. As the small, crop-headed figure emerged from the undergrowth bordering the falling, twisting ninth fairway during a practice round at Brookline this week, for the Ryder Cup which begins tomorrow, his fist was punching the air in a moment of unmistakable self-mockery. It could have been a replay of his banana shot around a tree on the 16th hole last month at Medinah, where his exhilarating assault on Tiger Woods' massive lead - five shots up with seven to play - produced an unforgettable final round at the USPGA.

Sergio failed, by a single stroke, to catch Woods, but in the process the 19-year-old made his name in the United States and raised hopes of a one-on-one rivalry to last a generation. Sharing a practice round at the Country Club with Jesper Parnevik, Jean Van de Velde and Andrew Coltart, he was the focus of all attention among the 30,000 spectators who crowded the tees and the tiny greens, shouting "Ser-gi-oh!" as he passed while letting the other Europeans go largely unrecognised.

The comeback at Medinah is what they know him for in these parts. In Britain, by contrast, he is probably still better remembered for shooting 89 and 83 on the first two days of the Open Championship at Carnoustie in July, missing the halfway cut at 30 over par. Some critics saw it as retribution for his youthful confidence - "I'm not afraid to be here," he had said on the eve of the tournament - and seemed to take pleasure in his failure.

Considering he had been a professional golfer for only a few weeks, the vindictiveness of the reaction was shocking. Nor did his critics like the way he dealt with it afterwards, either. He wouldn't be watching the rest of the Open on television. "It doesn't deserve for me to watch it," he said.

He shrugged his shoulders, and disappeared.

They had wanted tears, anguish, some sort of show of contrition. He didn't provide it. Instead, when he arrived in the media room at Medinah as the first-round leader a few weeks later, he had one thing to say. "I think I've proved myself," he declared. "The British Open is done, so I don't want to hear any more questions about it. But I'm going to tell you this.

"The difference is I played very good. Everything went right. At the Open I started with a triple bogey and everything went wrong. It seemed like I had to prove something, and that's what I've done."

This week, not unreasonably, someone broached the subject again. How long, he was asked, had it taken him to get over the Open? With a hint of brusqueness, possibly ill-advised, he reminded his questioner of what he had said at the PGA. But then he gave an answer. "It probably took me two hours," he said. "That was all."

His fellow professionals seem to hold him in genuine affection. Tiger Woods calls him "a wonderful human being", and talks with an almost avuncular fondness of having his own 23-year-old brains picked by the teenager during the four or five practice rounds they have shared this year.

Darren Clarke spoke yesterday of "a 19-year-old kid, jumping around all over the place. We're all happy to be here, but he's even more happy." Lee Westwood's deadpan East Midlands wit suffused his unlikely description of "a young lad who sits in the corner of the team room, doing his homework".

Colin Montgomerie, who is habitually generous to his fellow players, paid Sergio a remarkable tribute. "He's obviously an inspiration to us," the European No 1 said this week. "To do what he's done since he turned pro after the Masters is incredible. It's possibly the best amateur-to- pro there's ever been. We're very lucky to have him on our side, and he's great with the crowd out there as well. What happened at the USPGA with him and Tiger Woods was great for the game of golf, and I'm sure he'll come out on top this week. I'm sure of it."

But the one to whom he is closest is his compatriot, Jose Maria Olazabal.

When the vastly experienced Olazabal was asked in a press conference this week what impressed him about young Sergio, he replied: "Everything."

"Thank you," said Garcia, who happened to be sitting next to him.

Olazabal smiled, and continued. "How young he is, how long he hits the ball, how well he has handled the situation up to now, how well he did at the USPGA, how he managed to win the Irish Open, how well he putts. What else can I say?"

"Don't say anything else," Garcia interjected. "I'm getting red."

But Olazabal wasn't finished. "You've all seen him play," he resumed. "For a guy who is 19 years old and has played only five or six months as a professional, he's done a hell of a job."

So what advice would a five-times Ryder Cup competitor be giving to this novice?

"What advice can you give a guy who has achieved so much in five months? He's mentally fresh and has no fear. He should just enjoy it. And make it as long as possible. He's proved to the world what he can do. He doesn't have to worry about anything. Just play the game."

Before the Open, Olazabal had pleaded for his young friend to be given a little space and time, and not suffocated by publicity. It's too late for that now, and Olazabal acknowledges the skill with which, by and large, Garcia has handled the attention. "Sergio knows where he stands in life. He had very clear in his mind when he was 12, 13, 14 years old what he wanted to be. He was paying a lot of attention to what we were doing, not just myself but the other professionals."

Garcia is proud to be representing Spain in the team, alongside Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jiminez and following on from Canizares, Pinero and Ballesteros. "It's an honour to be following in their footsteps," he said.

"Golf is not such a big sport in Spain. Soccer is considered better. But we have some good players, and if playing in the Ryder Cup team is good for my country, then it's something I'm looking forward to." This weekend he will be under the eye of the king and queen of Spain, flying in to join the array of dignitaries.

The potential for a further step in the rivalry between Garcia and Woods this weekend was on a lot of minds. "You know, if I have to play against Tiger here, it will be nice," he said. "But what I have in mind right now is to help the European team to win the Cup, and I don't care if I'm going to play against Tiger or not."

Was it important to prove himself a better player than Woods? "No, I don't think so. I just want to be happy with myself. I'm really pleased with what I've done in the four or five months I've been a pro. And I'd like to keep on enjoying it. I'm not thinking of... well, I am thinking of being No 1, but I don't care if it's Tiger who is No 2, or whoever. I want to play well and that's all."

As for the current world No 1, having Sergio around has taken a particular burden off his shoulders. "It's nice to have someone younger than me out there," Woods said. "Had to happen one day."

And, with luck, Sergio will stay young for a while yet, continuing to bring a sense of fun and play to bear on a game which, more than most and all too often, can be disfigured by neurosis and despair.

"I think most Spanish people are like that," he said this week.

"They're open people, they're funny, they're always trying to laugh and trying to make friends. That's what I try to do. I think I'm a fortunate person."

At Carnoustie, he discovered what can happen when luck turns its back. His reaction may not have pleased everyone, but it seemed to do the trick in terms of ensuring that he suffered no damage to the instinctive exuberance which makes him such a joyful sight.

On the 10th green at the Country Club this week, he fired a wedge from 160 yards, hit the base of the flag-stick on the full pitch, and was cheered to the echo by people who suddenly realised, in the middle of all the patriotic hoo-ha, that they couldn't give a damn what colour shirt he was wearing. That's what he can do.