The imp of mischief that is rarely far from Sergio Garcia's eyes was gone by mid-afternoon yesterday, replaced by an air of resignation. Garcia had expected a rough ride in his fourth round of the US Open and he got it. Fans, some with beer in their hands, latched on to his remarks about Tiger Woods and fried chicken, and the fact that after more barracking on Saturday he called them "common" and branded their taunts "not very creative". Philadelphia is known for its Liberty Bell, its cheese steaks and cupcakes but not for its manners.
He and Woods passed one another early on in the fourth round with neither seeming to acknowledge the other. "Eat the bones" was shouted at Garcia as he walked up the 7th and momentarily losing his composure he replied to the three hecklers: "You'll grow up one day, boys."
On the 5th tee came a shout of "Sergio, fried chicken"; on another it was "chick, chick, chicken". One fan first shouted out "nice pants" in reference to Garcia's pink trousers and moments later changed his tune: "You're just a big bully, Sergio."
As Garcia's ball arrowed towards the flag on the short 13th, a loud squawk split the air. On the 15th, it was more "fried chicken".
On the 7th tee Garcia was encouraged to maintain his dignity and for the most part he did. There were genuine shouts of support for him throughout the round but more often there were loud taunts too. On the 9th, after he had three-putted, he had evidently had enough. He turned and stared hard at his critics.
It had been a long week for Garcia, who finished his fourth round four over par. On Saturday afternoon the fans may have thought they had won their interchange with Garcia after his 10 on a par-four hole. (He had run up an eight on the same hole on Thursday.) Once he might have slunk home and whined about his bad luck. He did so after losing to Padraig Harrington in the play-off for the 2007 Open. Not this time. He buckled down to play his next 14 holes in three-under par.
If Garcia sometimes talks without thinking, he sometimes plays without thinking, or so it appears. Witness the 71st and 72nd holes at the Players Championship in May where he hit three balls into water when he was threatening Tiger Woods. Woods and Garcia go together like matches and paraffin. A more mature person than Garcia would have had the sense to stop talking that fateful night in May when he said, apropos of Woods: "Sure, he can come over for dinner every night." If only he'd stopped there. If only he hadn't said: "We'll serve him fried chicken."
Of whom was the following written: "… is like the little boy who approaches a puddle of water and knows that he must not go into it but cannot resist doing so." It was Nick Faldo but it could have been Garcia.
There was no surprise when Garcia hit one drive after another out of bounds on the demanding 15th hole on Saturday, where one ball is in play on mown fairway and another out of play and out of bounds just six feet away. To those watching, Garcia resembled the hero in the film Tin Cup who, with victory in the US Open in sight, persists in hitting the wrong club to the 72nd green, sending one ball after another into a pond.
His reaction to his collapse at the Players was revealing. He did not hide. He faced up to his questioners, just as he did the morning after his remarks at Wentworth and when he hand wrote a note of apology to Woods. Just last week he was asked: "Do you have an understanding that the comments you made regarding Tiger Woods extend beyond Tiger Woods, that they have a stinging feeling to people who look like me? I mean it's not just about you and Tiger. This goes way beyond that."
Garcia, clearly chastened, replied: "I understand that. That's why I said I'm sorry. And that doesn't make me feel good, I can tell you that."
Some people are old before their time. Garcia is young for his years. Even now, aged 33, and in the eye of one hurricane after another, there is still some of the playfulness in him. He can be a bubbly, warm-hearted, occasionally pig-headed man who wears his heart on his sleeve.
He is going through a rough time. But he remains a heck of a player.