The growing pains of Sergio - Golf - Sport - The Independent

The growing pains of Sergio

In a Woods-dominated world, the young Spaniard needs to gain a mental grip to renew crucial rivalry

The buzz in the golf world immediately following Tiger Woods' second Grand Slam victory, at last year's US PGA in Medinah, was that Sergio Garcia was the one playercapable of preventing Woods from draining the drama from the professional game, from transforming it into a one-man show.

The buzz in the golf world immediately following Tiger Woods' second Grand Slam victory, at last year's US PGA in Medinah, was that Sergio Garcia was the one playercapable of preventing Woods from draining the drama from the professional game, from transforming it into a one-man show.

It seems remarkable, almost unbelievable, in the light of recent events, but Garcia ran Woods so close that when Woods finally stepped off the 18th green he looked so drained, so drawn, you sensed he might be sick.

The shot Garcia played in his final round at Medinah, the one from behind the tree, 200 yards out, that he sliced on to the green, put the fear of God into Woods and settled the idea in every observer's mind that here was a player of true genius. Not only was it the best, most impossible shot anyone hit anywhere in 1999, it is a shot that will live on in the collective memory so long as golf is played.

Then only 19, the exuberant, eternally smiling Garcia was the sporting revelation of the year. Within weeks of turning pro, having won everything there was to win at amateur level, he came third in the Byron Nelson Classic at Dallas, won the Irish Open, played - and starred - in the European Ryder Cup team and then, at the US PGA, came within a whisker of winning his first major. Since then he has not won a thing.

When Tiger sings, he is just one more member of the vast and hapless accompanying choir. At The Open at St Andrews last week he was in contention after two rounds - he was actually top of the leaderboard for about two hours - then fell apart, finishing at two under for the tournament, in 36th spot, 17 shots behind Woods.

Why has Garcia not rewarded the public's love last year with the rivalry they so crave? Why has he not become Palmer to Woods' Nicklaus? The first answer is that he is four years younger than Tiger and it is early days yet. The second is that Garcia has quite clearly fallen victim to a disease very common in golf. In America they call it the sophomore syndrome. You explode on the scene in your first year on the professional circuit, then suffer an abrupt fall under the pressure you impose on yourself, and that the public imposes on you, in your second season.

As a former professional who knows Garcia well observed, "that pressure can become self-destructive". The key, in the most "mental" game known to the species, is to overcome this phase with as much reflective calm as possible and recognise that before you conquer the world, you have to conquer yourself.

That is precisely what Woods has achieved. He is so focused on his goal of becoming the greatest golfer ever that it is almost sinister, unearthly.

Yet Woods, too, has shown signs of mortality. He too succumbed to sophomoritis. After clinching his first major, the US Masters, in 1997, at the age of 21 he went through a period of more than a year without winning a tournament. But since then, and especially in the last 12 months, something has clicked - both in his stroke and, more important, inside his head.

Garcia's talent remains as honed as ever, but his head is all over the place. Watching him closely at St Andrews during his first three rounds one observed that his long game - his drives, his approaches - were every bit as tight as Woods'. He was long, he was straight, he was well-nigh impeccable on the course where last year he captained Spain's Dunhill Cup victory.

It is not an exaggeration to say that had he holed half the par or birdie putts he had from a range of eight feet or less he would have given Woods almost as big a fright in The Open as he did at Medinah. But it is in those shortish putts that the head game comes into play, that the pressure, the anxiety, the despair to excel, to fulfil your promise, takes its toll. And the pressure becomes greater the deeper Garcia is into a tournament. Thus, at St Andrews, he began with a 68 and a 69, then collapsed with a 73 and a 76.

His outbursts of petulance in round three, as he sensed the chance of a dream match-up with Woods in round four was slipping from his hands, only served to show that he had lost his mental grip. But Woods behaved in such a fashion during his lean period too. And the fact that Garcia has achieved more at 20 and seven months than Woods had at the same age suggests that, if we are lucky and Sergio adds cool to his talent and sunny charm, we may still get that rivalry the game - suddenly - so badly needs.

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