Garcia struggles to find the key that will allow genius to flourish

Spanish prodigy's magical short game can come to the fore at US Masters after an inconsistent and controversial year

If Spanish golf has a spiritual second home in America it must be at Augusta National. Where the thick rough of other championship courses in the States strangles the genius of their golfers, Augusta's beauty and wide-open fairways provide the perfect stage to show off their gifts. "There is a special feeling at Augusta, without a doubt," said Jose Maria Olazabal, who returns as the defending Masters champion this week. "No other course can compare. You have the azaleas, the pine trees, it's absolutely beautiful. The whole place is inspirational."

Seve Ballesteros, then the youngest Masters champion until Tiger Woods won at 21 three years ago, started Spain's, and Europe's, love affair at Augusta in 1980. Seve added another Green Jacket three years later, although Spain hardly noticed. Olazabal only saw pictures of Ballesteros's first victory when playing in a charity match at Seve's home course of Pedreña in the mid-80s.

When Olazabal won in 1994, it was at last on television and Ollie came home to an audience with King Juan Carlos. A year ago, there was a double celebration. Olazabal, the champion again, could not contain the tears as he recalled the days he feared a foot injury would end hiscareer. Sergio Garcia could not contain his smiles as he took the low amateur honours and looked forward to a professional career.

To the 19-year-old, it was all good fun. "El Niño", as he was dubbed as a junior champion in Valencia, would keep on having fun in an extraordinary rookie season. He won in Ireland and Germany, finished runner-up to Woods in an unforgettable final round of the USPGA and contributed excitingly, and excitedly, to Europe's narrow defeat at the Ryder Cup. The Kid was a breath of fresh air in a stuffy game and a natural rival to the game's best player, Woods, himself only 24.

The pair will meet in a head-to-head match, the "Battle of Bighorn", on prime-time network television in the United States this August. Garcia was the obvious replacement for David Duval, whose match with Woods last year produced few thrills. But so far in 2000, Garcia, now 20, has few moments to smile about. "Second seasonitis", it is knows as on tour. Last week, he practised at the Golf Club of Georgia on the outskirts of Atlanta, after missing the cut at the Players Championship at Sawgrass following an opening 82. It was a performance, on a severely testing golf course, that was reminiscent of his first-round 89 in the Open at Carnoustie.

After the second round, Garcia fired his caddie, Fanny Sunesson, who split from Nick Faldo after 10 years to take the job. They lasted only six tournaments and the relationship clearly did not work. While Garcia's dismissal of Jerry Higginbotham, Mark O'Meara's old bagman, at the end of last year was understandable - the American was involved in a fight in a bar at the Ryder Cup - Sunesson is one of the most conscientious and hard working caddies on the tour.

"She did not feel appreciated," said Fred Funk, a friend of the Swede who has engaged her for the rest of the season. The only comment representing the Spaniard's side of the story came from a "source close to the Garcia camp", saying: "It just didn't work out. She wasn't happy. He wasn't happy. That's it."

In press conferences, Garcia has been muted compared to the bubbly enthusiasm of most of last year. Ironically, his troubles seemed to start a few days after captaining Spain to their first triumph in the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. There was the bizarre shoe-kicking incident in his first-round defeat to Retief Goosen in the World Match Play at Wentworth. He narrowly missed the referee's head and the incident made for startling photographs.

Garcia was left off with a warning by the European Tour but was miffed by the coverage of the affair. It was the same week that Nick Price voiced the first concerns over his technique, but the Garcia entourage, which includes his father, and coach, Victor, and a Miami-based businessman, Jose Marquina, thought the comments unhelpful. At the Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City, Garcia upset the locals with some ungracious comments about the course.

At the start of this year, Garcia announced he wished his nickname would be dropped. "I've been called El Niño since I was 14. It doesn't really bother me but wouldn't it be more normal to call me Sergio?" On the course, he has missed the cut twice in four strokeplay events on the US Tour. His best moments were reaching the third round of the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay, beating Mike Weir 7 and 6 on the way, and battling back to finish third in the Australian Masters after an opening 78. Though a young man, Garcia undertook a heavy schedule for his first year as a professional and it must have taken its toll.

"I hope I am wrong but I think he may find it a struggle this year," Olazabal said. "I think he played 14 tournaments in 16 weeks at the end of last season, and had only two weeks off before the start of this year. I'm not sure you can keep going at that pace. It has to catch up, even when you are only 20."

Like Ballesteros and Olazabal, Garcia's driving can be suspect but his short game is magical. These are ingredients that do not bode well for courses like Carnoustie and Sawgrass, but can thrive at Augusta. Garcia is probably the best driver of the threesome, ranking 18th for fairways hit on the US Tour, but has found only 56.5 per cent of greens in regulation. He ranks 176th with only one player below him on the list. What the sceptics are saying, caustically, is that the shot that made him famous, at the 16th at Medinah last August, came from behind a tree.

What Price said at Wentworth about Garcia was this: "He has to make some refinements. He has extremely fast hands and that can lead to fluctuations in ball striking. It is very hard to control hand speed day in, day out. If he can be more consistent, he will hit more fairways and greens and give himself more birdie putts. There is a lot of raw talent there and if he can make the refinements he is going to be a real powerhouse in the game."

The rumour at Sawgrass, denied all round, was that Garcia had approached Butch Harmon, Woods's coach, for help. Harmon has refined the world No1's technique to devastating effect and something similar might be needed with Garcia. "I think Sergio will be fine as his body matures," Harmon said. "The stronger he gets, the less need he will feel to get the club behind him and be so handsy, and his swing will change naturally. But the key is that he makes himself stronger."

While Woods is virtually the finished product, Garcia's technique is still evolving. "He is very early in his career. There is no need for anything drastic," said Victor Garcia. "People must understand Tiger is like a player from another planet."

While comparisons with Woods are invidious, so are expectations of immediate major success. "I hear what people are saying," Garcia said. "I heard someone say it would be a bad year if I did not win a major. Can you believe that? It is just a matter of working with my father and having a good tournament to boost my confidence. I am going to keep my head down, listen to nobody, and try to do my best."

Ignoring the advice, so readily sought and given in the past, from the likes of Ballesteros and Olazabal would be wrong, however. Even Woods is always alert to the experiences of his elders. And, prior to last year's Masters, Olazabal was given a pep talk by Gary Player.

"When someone like Gary is talking, you listen very carefully," Ollie said. "All those great players have such experience you can learn from. He made me believe more in myself and that was an important part of the week. He came up to me and asked for a chat but, with the intensity he talked to me, he was like a man on a mission."

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