The Ryder Cup: Sergio, spirit of Europe

Andrew Longmore charts the success of a Spanish talisman
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IT IS the 17th tee and Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik are one down with two to play against Davis Love and David Duval. The match has not had more than a hole in it all afternoon and the golf has been of the highest quality. Garcia sees Mrs Ben Crenshaw, wife of the US captain, and gives her a huge hug. Mrs Crenshaw looks a trifle bemused but she knows this is Sergio and, maybe, this is what they do in Spain.

Scroll on to the green of the 17th. Garcia's drive has left him with a pitch into the heart of the green, which slopes sharply uphill away from the hole. Garcia wants to make sure. He skips up to the green and, like the kid who has sneaked on to the golf course to play a few holes at twilight, peers round the corner just to see if he is stopping either of the Americans, back down the fairway, from hitting their shots.

Garcia never stands still. He is hypnotic and his transparent joy at playing the game he loves has transported the Spaniard, at the age of just 19, into the hearts of a public not noted for their generosity to sportsmen from overseas. Garcia cannot see the problem. Hug the rival captain's wife, laugh with the officials, joke with his caddie, chat to his opponents. Play a little golf. When Garcia plays a shot, you half expect him to stop and ask a spectator why they are not watching him. He is a natural extrovert, consigned by his elders to the corner to do his "homework" when he gets a bit too bumptious.

"This is what I like to do," Garcia said after he and Parnevik had snatched a half from the Americans on the very last hole of their afternoon fourballs. Three and a half points from his first four Ryder Cup matches.

The contrast with the played five, lost four record of Tiger Woods has not gone unnoticed. "I'm just trying to have fun," he added. "If I have fun, I play well. I enjoy playing for my country and my continent."

Another image. Again at the 17th, a picture in the sunshine of a late New England summer. Garcia has played his second to within six feet, but the ball is above the hole and the putt is dangerous. But it is Garcia's putt for the hole. He stalks it, his unity with Parnevik well rehearsed. The Swede takes one side, the Spaniard the other, the caddy joins in the discussions, then they patrol the reverse side; Garcia has to hit the putt but a committee has set it up. He settles over it, but is uncertain and misses. From the stands at the far side of the green a cheer rises. Garcia stops, turns and doffs his cap in a gesture of mock defiance. It is not all singing and dancing when Sergio is playing golf; there is a streak of steel through that boyish frame. But the reaction of the crowd was equally interesting. Total silence. An American crowd, fuelled by beer and patriotism, rebuked by a schoolboy.

This European Ryder Cup team have displayed an extraordinary sense of purpose, but, for the Americans, a disconcerting irreverence. If Colin Montgomerie has been the team's inspiration, the ship's captain, the ballast, the man to make critical putts, to strengthen nerve and perpetuate the serious side of an ancient and not always amicable rivalry, Garcia has been the cabin boy, the imp, the urchin, the ambassador of a young and fearless generation. His duel with Tiger Woods on the opening day was a study in contrast, the beginning of a rivalry into the next millennium perhaps, a reminder to the American that golf was still just a game.

"Sergio..." Crenshaw burst out laughing in the middle of his first day summary. "We all know how good he can play." Mark James paid tribute to the other half of an unlikely partnership. "He's a very clever guy, Jesper," James said. "Sergio's a big, big talent, but Jesper knows exactly when to let him go and when to rein in him. All I have to do is feed them chocolate and let them go."