Sergio steps back into the sun

Andy Farrell sees signs of Garcia becoming the player golf craves
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The Independent Online

When Sergio Garcia went running, jumping and skipping down the fairway on the 16th hole at Medinah, the young Spaniard was chasing the flight of his shot from behind a tree and pursuing a certain Tiger Woods. The shot, played during the climax of the 1999 US PGA Championship, came safely to rest on the green, but Garcia is still chasing the Tiger.

It goes without saying that the whole of the golfing world has been left behind by Woods, but quite how hard some are chasing is open to debate. Not with the 21-year-old from Valencia. "I think it is possible to catch him," Garcia says adamantly.

For much of the last 18 months it has not looked that way. Garcia arrived as a breath of fresh air during a glorious rookie season in 1999, but at times since there has been the hint of a bad odour. Not least when, during the World Match Play at Wentworth in October 1999, he ripped off a shoe and kicked it perilously close to the head of a referee.

The innocence and youthful exuberance that characterised his battle with Woods at Medinah and his inspirational performance at the Ryder Cup were lost. Last year, second-seasonitis set in, and though he had captained Spain to win the Dunhill Cup in 1999, he was not missed when the title was retained last October.

Then this season got worse before it got better. During the third round of the Greg Norman International in Sydney in February, Garcia took an incorrect drop from an advertising board, one that Norman himself, a playing partner, agreed with. But John Paramor, the European Tour's chief referee, confirmed a two-shot penalty that nullified his lead, at which Garcia angrily lashed out with a wedge at a tree and a buggy.

But it was his public comments on the matter that were most startling. "Hopefully, even with John Paramor's rules and everything, I will be able to win the tournament," he said. The following day, after losing to Aaron Baddeley in a play-off, he added: "Somebody did not want me to win and he did it."

The incident was discussed by the Tournament Committee of the European Tour in March, but a call for immediate action was delayed until Garcia was able to appear in person. A meeting was set for the week of the Volvo PGA Championship, but when Garcia decided not to play in the event, a strange, possibly political, decision given his quest for Ryder Cup points, he was fined £5,000 at a committee meeting. Only once before has the Tour handed down a similar fine, to Ronan Rafferty for walking out of the US Open in 1991.

There is something about Spanish golfers that also seems to reside in Pakistani cricketers. Pride and passion, flair and brilliance, defeat and despair, charm or petulance ­ you never know what is coming next. Garcia heard about his fine while playing in the Colonial tournament in America and duly won the event with a closing round of 63.

This was more than an elegant salute to his peers back home. This was Garcia's first win on the US Tour, and his first since he won in Ireland and Germany during his rookie season. Talk about a Garcia-Woods rivalry ­ although Sergio did beat Tiger in a made-for-TV event last summer ­ had disappeared, to be replaced by the simple question of when Garcia would win again. "I don't feel it should have taken so much time," Garcia said. "I felt I have played well enough to win before this. It's been hard but it is even sweeter now."

Jesper Parnevik, Garcia's Ryder Cup partner at Brookline, said: "He came out like Tiger and it looked so easy. He was getting all the attention. But in his mind, he hasn't lived up to expectations. At 19, he had so much success and he thought it would keep going. It didn't, and he started to force it."

Garcia is four years younger than Woods and still has a long way to develop. He also turned professional at a younger age and, coming from a small golfing country and trying to base himself on foreign soil in the States, has more hurdles to cross. After two years as a professional, Woods had won the Masters but his game and maturity, both now so strong, were still evolving.

"You have to realise I am still pretty young," Garcia said. "It's the way it goes sometimes. You have to mature and learn from your mistakes." In March, Garcia signed with the International Management Group. After an incident last year when Garcia walked out of a pro-am at the Volvo Masters, they are helping improve his public relations.

Clarke Jones, who also looks after Parnevik and Vijay Singh, said of his new client: "He is one of those people who make you feel good when you're around him. I have no idea of how good he'll be as a professional golfer, but he has an infectious energy that comes through in his personality."

Last Sunday, Garcia ran in second to Woods at the Memorial. He is, very definitely, still chasing the Tiger.