Well, well, well, Tiger Woods heads to Dubai in silence this week after shooting 79 on a Torrey Pines course he has tamed eight times. Meanwhile the man he loves to hate, Sergio Garcia, returns to the world top 10 following a win in Qatar. It was in conflict with Woods that Garcia plumbed the depths of casual racism in May last year, the reference to fried chicken bringing the roof in on his world just when the heat was returning to his game.
Garcia was profoundly remorseful and apologetic. He learned a lesson that week at Wentworth about the limits of banter and cultural sensitivities. He was shocked to the core by how, in one unthinking remark, he had brought himself so low in the estimation of those who don’t know him.
The response of the galleries at the European tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, demonstrated how deep the love for Garcia is in the game. Beyond it he was suddenly a pariah. Garcia is not racist in spirit but the joke he cracked at Woods’ expense most certainly was.
Garcia endured his disgrace in obvious discomfort. A fortnight earlier at the Players Championship the moral high ground was his in a dispute with Woods over course etiquette. Garcia complained about a lack of consideration from Woods when he was about to play a shot during their third-round pairing. The spat got ugly, with Garcia claiming as politely as he could that Woods was not his favourite person, which only added to the intensity of a remarkable contest on the final day, Woods prevailing when Garcia found the drink at the 17th.
Though Woods reasserted his power persona at Sawgrass, Garcia had done enough to convince us that he had rediscovered his love for the game and that he might yet fulfil his potential. Three years earlier he was on the verge of walking away. It was Colin Montgomerie who persuaded him back to the fray when at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor he handed him a quasi vice-captain role. Garcia was no more than a glorified mascot but the immersion in what turned out to be a momentous weekend for Europe was enough to reconnect this marvellous golfer to the sport.
After a summer of mortification in golf’s heartlands, Garcia shed the sackcloth at the end of the year, posting top-fives in China and South Africa and winning in Thailand. The victory in Qatar was his second in three events straddling the festive period. He now has three weeks off before returning at the first world golf championship event of the year, the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson.
It is 15 years since Garcia skipped into our hearts and under Woods’ skin at the PGA Championship at Medinah. Garcia’s effervescence and youthful charm cut across the legend Woods was shaping. As it turned out Woods needn’t have worried. Garcia was unable to substantiate in major terms his obvious talents. Not in his first coming, anyway.
Now 34, Garcia is notionally arriving at a golfing peak. If he is ever to claim the major championship his gifts demand it will be in this phase of his career. The narrative of the year to come is all about Woods and that 15th major. Rory McIlroy’s return to form is no minor theme in itself, given the turmoil of 2013, not to mention Phil Mickelson and his attempt at a career grand slam that a maiden US Open win would secure.
But right up there alongside them is Garcia’s own redemptive tale. In an interview I conducted with him in Qatar three years ago, he was unsure where his return would take him. He spoke of the gathering despair that claimed him, linked to a series of failed romances, including the devastation of his break-up with Greg Norman’s daughter Morgan-Leigh in 2009.
Rudderless in his private life, Garcia was unable to bring to his professional life the focus it requires. McIlroy experienced a little of this last year. There is none of that now in either case. Garcia was taken to a third play-off hole by Mikko Ilonen before raising aloft his 11th European Tour trophy.
It was his seventh play-off, only two of which had ended successfully. Third time lucky? Hardly. Garcia shot 65 to lead in the clubhouse and was required to go again only after Ilonen rattled in a 25-footer at the last to reach the shoot-out stage. “I started playing better and hitting the ball better as the week went on,” Garcia said. “It was really, really nice to be able to shoot 65 when you know you need to do something like that.”
Garcia had nothing to prove on this stage. But his victory begs the ultimate question: can he do it in a major? Let’s hope so, if only to be shot of that particular line of inquiry.