It hadn’t been a British Open for the ages, but it certainly would earn a page in the scrapbook. The final round at Carnoustie in 2007 was a flawed, boisterous affair featuring two of the game’s premier Europeans, neither of whom had won a major, neither of whom particularly cared for the other.
So there was no banter when Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia crossed paths on a narrow footbridge between the 17th and 18th holes, Harrington en route to what should have been a crushing double bogey, Garcia locked in another tussle with his inner demons. Garcia’s three-shot lead at the start of the day would dissolve into a one-stroke deficit. Harrington knocked two balls into Barry Burn at the last, however, and when Garcia arrived on the 18th tee moments later, he led by one.
Eleven years have passed since that cool, gray afternoon on the North Sea coast in Scotland, the day Garcia lost his sunshine. The ebullient Spanish phenom had almost won the 1999 PGA Championship in his second major start as a pro, but the promise of greatness was attached to a bout of lateness. The 2001 and ’02 U.S. Opens, the 2004 Masters, British Opens in 2005 and ’06 ….
“Every time I get in this position, I never have any room for error,”
Garcia told the post-round media assemblage at Carnoustie. “I should write a book on how to not miss a shot and not win a playoff.”
Oh, yes, the playoff. Garcia bogeyed the final hole of regulation and journeyed back out for four extra holes against Harrington. Two down after the first hole, Garcia hit a tee shot at the par-3 16th that ricocheted off the base of the flagstick, turning what was almost an ace into an excruciating par. Harrington finished off his foe and became the first Irishman in 60 years to win a Claret Jug.
Garcia gulped down another grueling loss and headed for the clubhouse. Inside the tiny locker room, it was just myself and Garcia’s caddie, Glen Murray, who had tears leaking from his eyes as he packed Garcia’s belongings. In walked Victor Garcia, the club pro who couldn’t have done a better job paving the road of superstardom for his son.
At golf tournaments, somebody wins and a lot of guys lose. Losing comes in a hundred different flavors, however, and the taste of this one wasn’t sitting well with Victor. He looked like a man about to get sick to his stomach, but just when you think the dad took it the hardest, the son arrived.
More than shaken, Garcia appeared dazed. He sat on the bench near his locker and pulled his cap over his eyes, bending the bill inward. I was close enough to hear him breathing heavily, yet he didn’t seem to notice me. As a reporter, I never lived for moments like this, but I never walked away from one, either.
Garcia began sniffling, then looked up. The eye contact felt awkward, but I’d already decided that I wouldn’t speak unless spoken to.
“Would you please leave?” he said with emphasis.
It seemed like a fair request, so I honored it. Before the locker-room door had fully closed, I heard a wail behind me, a sound one might attribute to a wounded animal. If potential is life’s greatest curse, Garcia was far more troubled than terrific, a good kid whose competitive soul could not bear the burden of expectations.
I felt bad for the guy, at least for about 15 minutes, until he came
into the media center and threw a pity party for himself in a room
full of journalists, cameramen and other unforgiving types. Garcia
said he didn’t miss a shot, a preposterous claim by a man who didn’t three-putt once but still made five bogeys.
He said he hit “unbelievable” putts, which is not something you’d
expect from a tour pro who signed for a 73. After taking a shot at the grounds crew for taking too long to rake a couple of bunkers on the 18th, Garcia blamed the golf gods. And as we all know, they are not to be trifled with.
“Sometimes I can control myself; sometimes I can’t,” he would say later. “You only hear about it when I can’t control myself.”
It is the tale of two Sergios, a fascinating dichotomy in a game in
which you are what you shoot. I’ve seen him spend 20 minutes laughing and playing with handicapped kids behind the 18th green in Charlotte, and I’ve seen him do some of the dumbest things in the history of pro golf. I’ve seen him throw shoes, cry the blues, hug little old ladies and find lots of ways to lose.
I’ve also seen him win a Masters. Better great than never.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org