Maturing Garcia is on trail of the Tiger

Spanish youngster is ironing out flaws to become Europe's brightest hope of ending Woods' supremacy
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The Independent Online

Members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golf Society, having spent a frozen weekend at Rye as tradition demands, may disagree, but Hawaii is perhaps a more appealing place to see in the New Year. In accord with a more recent tradition, it is here that the new professional season begins, with the Mercedes Championships, which concluded in the early hours of this morning.

It was Sergio Garcia's first visit to the Pacific island. "The place is unbelievable," he said. "The weather has been absolutely wonderful." The event is the old Tournament of Champions, the field limited to the winners of the previous year's events on the US Tour. The size of the entry has been reduced in recent seasons by the multiple qualifications of a certain Tiger Woods, but an annual trip represents a steady accumulation of titles. As Garcia said: "If you come back to Hawaii, it's always a good sign."

The Spaniard seems to have been around for ages but, in fact, celebrates only his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. He is fully four years Tiger's junior but by the end of last season appeared to be one of those players with a realistic chance of getting closer to the world No 1. In ranking terms, with sizeable leaps becoming exponentially more difficult the higher up the table you go, Garcia's surge from 15th to sixth in the world was one of the most significant of 2001.

Only two other players broke into the top 10, David Toms and Retief Goosen, and they both won major championships. Garcia is now a realistic major contender, something that was doubtful before he won on the US Tour for the first time last season. His best finish remains the second place behind Woods at the USPGA at Medinah in his extraordinary rookie season of 1999.

Since then there have been incidents galore – shoe-kicking, club-throwing, temper tantrums, an altercation with a pro-am playing partner – as the excitable boy turned into a passionate young man. Last year, Garcia was fined twice by the European Tour, once for disparaging a referee in Australia, the other for rubbishing the facilities at Loch Lomond. On the European circuit there is a divergence of opinion between those who believe his behaviour requires stern action and those who think the Tour must not alienate the youngster to the point where his brief trips to his home continent become solely for visiting family and friends in Castellon.

Yet, during his 21st year, Garcia began to come of age and there is no denying the talent. Without a victory for 18 months, he won the Colonial with a last round of 63 and then took the Buick Classic. At the Lancome Trophy, he came from four behind with four to play to beat Goosen. Then at the Sun City Challenge (winner's cheque: $2m), he again closed with a 63 to tie with Ernie Els, before beating the home hero in a sudden-death playoff. Garcia had missed the green at the par three, while Els had a birdie putt from 15 feet. Garcia chipped in, Els missed his putt.

It is the priceless asset of making things happen that makes Garcia dangerous, despite the fact that he is still ironing out technical flaws in his game. The most obvious is the regripping of the club in the address position, a nervous tic if ever there was one. Waggling of the clubhead at address is not something coaches worry about. It can help the movement into the backswing and allow for last-minute views of the target. But that Garcia's attention is not on the target but the ball for increasingly lengthy periods before swinging the club is a concern.

Garcia does his best to shrug off questions about the regripping. "Well, it's not something that I really focus on. As I said before, Jack Nicklaus did about I don't know how many waggles when he was going to hit. I'm over the ball, I like to feel comfortable. As soon as I've got everything right in my mind, that's when I hit it."

On the par-five ninth at Sun City in the second round, Garcia could not get his mind right at all. He regripped 30 times before backing off the shot. He tried again and had regripped another 30 times before he (expletive deleted) slung the club back in the bag and laid up with a wedge. After the round, his father Victor, who has always acted as his son's swing coach, taped Garcia's hands to the grip of a club and made him hit balls for two hours without being able to regrip. And yet, two days later, he won the tournament.

Once again this year, Garcia will play mainly in America and only the minimum of 11 tournaments on the European Tour. Nevertheless, he is setting out to win the money lists in both sides of the Atlantic. To do so in Europe from a limited programme will mean having to win a major and a World Championship event. To do so in the States will mean deposing Woods.

"I said that I want to do it, I didn't say I'm going to," Garcia noted. "I'd like to do it. More than anything, if I'm able to win both of them, it will be amazing. If I'm able to win one of them, it would be great. You know, that's the expectations. You've got to try to make them as high as you can. If I ask myself to just make cuts, I'm probably going to miss a lot of them. If you ask yourself to win tournaments, you make a lot of cuts and you win some of them."

Tackling Woods, clearly, is a motivation. "I don't think you put anybody as high as Tiger. What he has done, it's unbelievable. But I consider myself a challenger, more than anything because I'm younger than him. I haven't done the things he's done, but give me four years. I've beaten him. I beat him head-to-head. I beat him in some tournaments. I almost beat him at the PGA. I've won tournaments with him around. Any time you win a tournament, it's great. But if he's there and you're able to beat him, face to face, it's even better.

"The gap is a lot closer, I think. I'll say he's capable of doing some things that some of us can't do, like hitting a two-iron 270 yards straight up in the air and things like that. But I also think that we're able to do some things that maybe he can't do. I think that we can be as good as him. I am almost 22 years old, and he's 26, I think that I can be as good as he is at 26 when I'm 26, or hopefully sooner."

This year's Open will be at Muirfield, where Garcia won the British Amateur in 1998. He cannot wait to return, while the Masters at a revamped Augusta will also be intriguing. "Maybe I've put too much emphasis on the majors," he said. "I'm really looking forward to them this year. I think my game is getting to a point where I can have chances of winning them. Even if you play well, it has to be your week to be able to win. We'll see what happens."

There is another little tournament in Hawaii in November, the Grand Slam of Golf, meaningless in itself but you have to win a major to get there. As Garcia said, any time you are in Hawaii, you must be doing well.