Garcia nears major breakthrough

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The Independent Online

The 2004 Masters will be remembered for the thrilling way Phil Mickelson seized his first Green Jacket, but it may prove equally significant for the man who has assumed the left-hander's mantle of major winner-in-waiting.

Sergio Garcia has only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, yet it seems he has been around the professional tournament scene forever. Already a veteran of three Ryder Cup matches - the most recent, at Oakland Hills last September, was a personal tour de force - the young Spaniard has been expected to claim one of golf's four majors since finishing runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 1999 US PGA Championship.

But to date he has come up short when it really matters, and even though he clearly has time on his side, he has dropped out of the élite group of those who currently bestride the game - Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els (the much-celebrated "Fab Four") and Retief Goosen.

Garcia's current world ranking - seventh - is not exactly a disgrace, but his start to the 2005 campaign has been undeniably low-key. After six outings on America's PGA Tour, he stands 45th on the money list with earnings of just over $450,000 but, remarkably, only one top-10 finish - a tie for ninth at Bay Hill last month.

However, far from feeling depressed at his failure to contend seriously for early-season glory, the notoriously temperamental Garcia is quietly confident that the events of 12 months ago might repeat themselves even more fruitfully next week.

Going into last year's Masters, he had made an even less impressive opening to his season - six starts and one top-10, again, for prize money of just over $295,000. And for the first 60 holes at Augusta, the omens remained inauspicious - he stood five over par and buried among the also-rans. But the emotional Garcia has the capacity to spring suddenly and brilliantly to life.

"I was eight under for the last 12 holes," he remembers. "For a while in that last round nothing really happened, then on the sixth I hit a seven-iron straight at the flag and was thinking, 'This has a chance of going in'.

"Instead it caught the hill, I played two bad chips and walked off with a double-bogey five. I was two over for the round and felt like I should have been three under.

"I was too far back then to have a chance of winning, and said to myself, 'Right, let's just play'. All of a sudden I started making birdies, three in a row and then five more. I've always loved Augusta since the first time I played it - and it's nice to know I can shoot a low one there now."

That closing 66 lifted him into a tie for fourth with his Ryder Cup captain, Bernhard Langer, on 285 (three under).

Aware this effort was too little, too late in terms of his title challenge, his mood when interviewed by the BBC's Julian Tutt immediately afterwards was distinctly black and surly. But it certainly kick-started his season, which blossomed thereafter, with the notable exception of the other three majors - he was 20th in the US Open and missed the cut in the last two. On the plus side, he won twice in America and collected four-and-a- half points out of a possible five in the Ryder Cup.

Since turning professional in 1999, Garcia has felt that capturing one major would lead to many more. But to achieve greater consistency he has had to rebuild his swing, and give best, for now, to the "Famous Five".

"They're definitely playing very nicely, so a lot of credit to them," he said. "But I'm not worried about getting in that category. I've just got to keep doing the things I've been doing and hopefully I will win one soon. I want to keep improving and let my clubs do the talking. If I do that, it should be sweet.

"My goal is to win a major as soon as possible. But the thrill of putting yourself in contention and having a chance at winning tournaments, that's a great feeling too.

"I will probably get to Augusta on Monday, practise Tuesday and Wednesday, play for four days and hopefully spend a bit of extra time in the afternoon on Sunday sitting around right next to the 18th green. Then perhaps get a new jacket for my wardrobe."

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