Sergio Garcia awaits his chance to say sorry to Tiger Woods face to face
Spaniard wants to talk golf, but knows that fried chicken will again be on the menu when he meets Woods at this week's US Open
Tiger Woods says the matter is done, time to move on. For Sergio Garcia it might never be over. Whenever the issue of racism in sport – let alone golf – recurs, the casual insult delivered at a gala dinner in London will resurface. That offer of fried chicken acquired a life of its own, taking its place in the register of racist slurs by public figures the moment it left his lips.
Garcia posted his apologies across the ether and asked for forgiveness. This week at the US Open in Philadelphia, which ironically translates from the Greek as brotherly love, he encounters Woods and an American audience for the first time since his crass misjudgement.
The tension between Woods and Garcia had flared a fortnight earlier at the Players Championship. It was the kind of spat episodically witnessed when alpha males go at it in elite sport, and was ultimately settled by the scorecards.
What happened on the eve of Wentworth was rooted in their personal distaste for each other, but shifted on to political ground that concerns us all. Garcia was deeply shamed and appropriately remorseful. The game was desperate to draw a line under the affair but bungled the attempt with the European Tour chief executive George O'Grady's reference to Garcia's friendship group as "coloured athletes".
The US Open organisers will not want the issue on their agenda either, but they have no control over that. It is bigger than the game. Garcia intends to seek out Woods to apologise in person. That has to happen before anyone can begin to address the golf. Both are scheduled to appear before the media on Tuesday.
Garcia returned to Spain to prepare for Merion knowing that questions about his ball-striking and short game will not be at issue on his entry into the clubhouse. "We talked to his manager and asked him if he wanted us to call Tiger, or wait for Merion and do it there face to face, and they said they would rather do it there," Garcia said before leaving for Spain. "There's nothing else we can do, so we'll wait until we get there and we'll talk."
Rarely can the fate of a golfer have nosedived so dramatically in the space of 24 hours. The evening before the European Tour dinner Garcia was the star attraction in a spoof Question of Sport quiz at Wentworth. He was in fine fettle, appearing relaxed and renewed following the head-to-head with Woods at Sawgrass, which came to grief for him at the penultimate hole. While some saw the successive balls into the water at 17 as evidence of an old failing of attitude and nerve, Garcia saw it as a willingness to have a go born of a restored attachment to the sport and belief in himself.
Nestled comfortably in an armchair before taking to the Wentworth stage that Monday night, Garcia explained how he had come to terms with a career that had yet to yield the major it promised, how he had learned to compartmentalise golf and see it for the game it was, not as a defining part of his life. All of this, he claimed, was a contributory factor in his sharp return to something like his best form since the crisis of a failed romance with Greg Norman's daughter three years ago left him bereft and considering walking away.
"Things outside the game improved dramatically, which helps. When your head is settled and you are on the golf course and you can think about what you are doing it is obviously much easier than when you are playing and thinking about other things.
"My attitude has changed a little bit. One of the things I love about my life now is that I don't need to win to be happy. Don't get me wrong, I love winning, but I can be happy doing so many things.
"Golf is not the ultimate thing for me. It doesn't mean that when I'm playing I'm not trying my hardest, but as you get older you are able to understand what are the important things in life."
The trauma of Wentworth prompted a blunt reappraisal of those very elements and incurred a warning from sponsors TaylorMade about his future conduct. Garcia is one of the signature names in golf, popular wherever he plays. It is clear his regret is genuine. It is for him to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences this week, whatever they might be.
By the close at Wentworth it had taken an obvious toll. "It was a long week, a lot of emotions going on. I tried with what I had. It wasn't my best game but I still tried."
At some point the golf will reassert itself. Garcia showed at Sawgrass that he has the game to compete, and maybe land a legitimate blow on Woods by claiming that illusive major. "The best thing are the people I have around me, they make up for anything that happens on the golf course. To be surrounded by great friends is the key.
"The golf will go away at some point. Winning a major would make me happy but it doesn't mean I won't be happy if I don't. When the golf is over, how many tournaments I have won won't matter. There are some people who, even when winning, they are still not happy, and that is sad.
"It would have been great to win the Players again. It is one of the biggest tournaments we play. Every time you have a chance to win on a golf course that you like – it is one of my favourites – that is great, but it didn't happen.
"I was fine about it. I gave everything I had to try to win, I went for the shots that I felt I could go for. When you flip a coin like that it sometimes comes out heads and other times tails. Unfortunately this time it came out tails. The important thing is that I keep working to give myself a chance to win and hope the coin turns up heads more often than not."
Back to basics: Course designed for a cricket club with 'the white faces of Merion'
"Merion – what a golf course, plenty of birdie chances mixed with plenty of potential disaster. Going to be an exciting US Open." That is the view of Rory McIlroy, who paid his first visit to the Philadelphia course last week. Merion is a throwback to an era when size didn't matter. It has hosted five Opens but none since 1981, so most are seeing it for the first time in combat.
It is a brave move by the United States Golf Association, running counter to golf's direction of travel. At 6,900 yards it is relatively short and relies on more traditional methods to challenge today's über-athletes. There won't be a huge profit either since the cramped environment limits crowds to 25,000 a day.
In returning to Merion, therefore, the USGA is making a statement along the lines of "enough is enough, we don't want balls flying more than 300 yards through the ether propelled by graphite-shafted clubs with heads the size of mini-roundabouts".
Luke Donald's caddie John MacLaren said it evoked in him a sense of the English summer. That is no accident. The course, commissioned by Merion Cricket Club, is the work of Scottish immigrant Hugh Wilson, who spent seven months in the old country in 1912, even cancelling his Titanic ticket in order to extend his stay.
As a result it features sprawling peninsula bunkers – known as the "white faces of Merion" – dunes grass, Scotch broom and robust intermediate rough. It is quirky, too, with egg-shaped baskets atop the pins instead of flags. No wind tips here on the greens.
The East Course was opened in 1912 and has hosted more USGA championships than any in America. In 1930 Bobby Jones won the US Amateur here to record the first major grand slam in a calendar year. Jack Nicklaus said of the East Course: "Acre for acre, (Merion) may be the best test of golf in the world." After his play-off victory over Nicklaus in 1971, Lee Trevino quipped: "I love Merion and I don't even know her last name."
Signature holes include the 256-yard par-three third and the 521-yard 18th which is a par four on the Open card. The middle third features a series of short par fours, the shortest of which is the 10th, measuring just 303 yards.
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