One fan sums up the sardonic Spaniard’s dichotomy: ‘You want to love him, but he won’t let you.’
Sergio Garcia turns 40 years old on Jan. 9, which is reason enough to ponder the notion that time flies when you’re having fun. Some might remember Garcia’s ballyhooed pro debut in 1999 as if it happened yesterday. Others, most of whom likely reside on this side of the Atlantic, probably wish that he never came along at all, that it seems as if he’s been around forever and can’t disappear fast enough.
At any rate, it has been more than two decades since Garcia burst onto the scene as Europe’s answer to Tiger Woods, which wasn’t all that silly of a proposition at first. Having fun? Garcia radiated joy back in the El Niño days, but the burden of expectation and a lengthy string of final-day failures at the major championships turned the Smiling Spaniard into a sardonic sourpuss.
Time flies? Sure, but the turbulence can make a man miserable, and coming down, as the late Tom Petty pointed out, is the hardest thing. Garcia arrives at his 40th birthday a bit thicker in the middle and thinner on the top. His second child, a son, is on the way, and if the 2017 Masters champion sounded positively giddy in a New Year’s message to his Twitter followers, at least a handful of replies featured the mean-spirited venom and references to incidents that have gone a long way toward making Garcia one of the most polarizing golfers the game has ever produced.
A majority of that negativity came from Americans. My next-door neighbor, a benevolent New Englander if such a thing exists, cannot stand Garcia. Another passionate golf fan told me that he was moved to tears after Garcia beat Justin Rose in a playoff at Augusta National for his first and only major title, emotionally consumed by Garcia’s grasp of the elusive accomplishment.
“I remember thinking that he was finally growing up,” the fan said. “Then, he goes and destroys the golf course like some kind of lunatic [in Saudi Arabia last winter]. You want to love him, but he won’t let you.”
Beyond the fact that it took him 18 years to win a major, Garcia has built a career most clearly defined by his nine Ryder Cup appearances, six of which were won by the Euros. Simply put, he is the most productive player in the history of the series, compiling a 22-12-7 record en route to passing Nick Faldo as the event’s all-time points leader. Amazingly, Garcia has lost just eight times in 32 sessions with a partner.
You could spend months searching for a more accredited arsonist. His body of work at the Ryder Cup should be enough to earn Garcia a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame someday. Without it, he’s a borderline candidate who eventually would get in because the hall’s standards are ridiculously low. Garcia certainly is more worthy than Colin Montgomerie, another Ryder Cup stalwart who was enshrined despite never having won a major. Monty didn’t win an official event of any size in the United States until after he joined the Champions Tour.
In addition to the Masters and the 2008 Players, Garcia owns eight other victories on the PGA Tour and 15 in Europe, where he has maintained a part-time schedule throughout his career. The irony of it all is that Garcia always has prioritized playing in the U.S., even when the commitment jeopardized his Ryder Cup status, yet he’s the one foreign star whom American fans have loved to loathe.
So much of that obviously has to do with his petulance over the years. Garcia’s childish tantrums and displays of poor sportsmanship stain his legacy like no other player in this generation. John Daly had his moments, but there was an innate vulnerability to Big John that lured the public into forgiving him for his transgressions. People seem to portray Garcia as the self-entitled son of a club pro who knows better than to hurl a shoe into the gallery after slipping on a tee box (Wentworth, 1999) or spit into the cup after missing a short par putt (Doral, 2007).
Even at the Ryder Cup, the one gathering at which Garcia performed better than anyone else on a regular basis, his demonstrative celebrations resulted in additional damage to his image. The guy couldn’t win for losing, even when he was doing a lot of winning, and though he has brought a vast majority of the wrath upon himself with his actions, that doesn’t make it any less sad.
The multiple tantrums in Saudi Arabia 11 months ago were particularly appalling because it did seem as if Garcia finally had turned the corner. His destruction of numerous greens and club-slamming meltdown in a bunker came at a tournament in which Garcia was paid an appearance fee of more than $500,000, according to published reports. His conduct led to a disqualification, but the European Tour’s decision not to impose further sanctions was almost as ridiculous as the behavior itself.
He’s not the player he once was, currently 39th in the Official World Golf Ranking, although Garcia did beat a solid field at the KLM Open just four months ago to pick up his 15th Euro Tour victory. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000s, when fame was still his friend and Garcia’s dogged pursuit of Woods hadn’t reached the point of futile obsession. I’ve seen him hug little old ladies who were awestruck by his mere presence. I’ve seen him spend 20 minutes hanging out with handicapped kids whose wheelchairs had been rolled to the top of the hill bordering the 18th green at Quail Hollow.
I’ve seen him do things no other tour pro does, but unfortunately, so has everyone else. Golf has made Sergio Garcia a very rich man. Fatherhood will make him a happy one. Unconditional love. It’s the one thing that can overcome a battered competitive soul.