RYDER CUP: Why Sergio lives for this eventSeptember, 2012
Energised by the Ryder Cup, in every other week Garcia is a team player trapped in an individual sport. We think watching him shed his angst again at Medinah will be a wonderful sight...
Two years ago, in the opening gloom of Celtic Manor, there was a very special cheer for one of the European party. It was a different noise to the others, one that was borne out of deep affection and most likely a touch of sadness.
Here we had possibly our most talented player and someone who had, since his debut in 1999, very quickly become the figurehead of the European assault. They might have Tiger or Phil, we had Sergio and, in Ryder Cup terms, the Spaniard was the ace in the pack.
It is all too easy to forget quite the enormous role Garcia has played in our recent dominance of the matches. The last we saw of the 32-year-old in Ryder Cup action he was getting a 5&4 mauling by Anthony Kim in the lead-off singles at Valhalla.
The defeat concluded a fairly miserable few days with just one point contributed, three different partners in three different outings and the first time he had missed a series of matches.
While Captain Faldo might have got a few things wrong, resting Garcia on the second morning wasn’t one of them. The spark wasn’t there and the hangover of losing the recent PGA Championship, again to Padraig Harrington as had happened at Carnoustie in the Open the year before, appeared still to be in the system.
Before that he was explosive, before that he won 15 points out of a possible 20 and that included three singles defeats.
The story began at Brookline with Europe going for a first hat-trick of victories. As such the atmosphere was fairly hostile and, as we all know, things got out of hand at the end of the week.
At the start of the week a 19-year-old, fresh from a runners-up spot in just his second Major as a professional, skipped merrily along, as he had done at Medinah, alongside Jesper Parnevik.
His opening day in a Ryder Cup ended with victories over Tiger Woods, Tom Lehman, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.
Not bad for a teenager.
The week might have ended in tears for Garcia, his countryman and good friend Jose Maria Olazabal having to endure the wildest of celebrations, but they, and Europe, would be back.
As world events transpired it would be three years before the next match and the waters had calmed. Lee Westwood was tumbling down the world rankings and came into the matches desperate for a bolt of confidence, Sam Torrance paired him with Garcia who had just racked up four top 10s in the Majors.
Almost immediately, the Englishman looked like his old self.
After the first day David Duval, Davis Love, Woods and Mark Calcavecchia had been seen off.
Garcia lost his first fourball the following afternoon when Woods and Love won on the last hole.
The Spaniard was fuming when American players, and a reporter and cameraman, rushed onto the 18th green to celebrate. He hurled his ball into the nearby lake and kicked his bag as he left.
The following day another Garcia ball would join it as his drive went astray against David Toms and a second last-hole loss was suffered. A few hours later Paul McGinley would hole the winning putt and he would taste his first victory.
On to Oakland Hills in 2004 and while Woods and Mickelson were paired together in one of the strangest alliances in Ryder Cup history, Garcia was back with Westwood for the opening morning and getting the job done by the 15th.
Captain Bernhard Langer got pretty much everything right in Michigan and one touch of genius was pairing close friends Garcia and debutant Luke Donald in the Friday foursomes. Gnarly campaigners Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink were dispatched the first day, Fred Funk and Furyk the next.
The Spaniard was fuming when American players, and a reporter and cameraman, rushed onto the 18th green to celebrate. He hurled his ball into the nearby lake and kicked his bag as he left. At the K Club two years later the pair were reunited for another two from two and you would be very brave not to have the pair down in your opening foursomes line-ups in Chicago, maybe even in the top match though Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell might be keener on that role.
Oakland Hills finished as Garcia’s most successful Ryder Cup individually. He claimed his first singles victory, over Mickelson, and ended the week with four and a half points.
Colin Montgomerie might have holed the winning putt but the on-course leader was now Garcia. At the team press conference afterwards it was Garcia at the heart of all the jokes and, thanks to his stunning play, the highest of praise.
“There’s not many Europeans that have won four and a half points in a single match and I think that speaks for itself,” said Montgomerie at the time.
“But to be the youngest on the team, and to have that effervescent personality that he does, adds a great deal to our team, and a very reliable character.
“Even when Sergio went two down, early on, we knew that that game wasn’t over and he proved it yet again. So that’s what he means to us.”
On the morning of September 22, 2006, all the talk was understandably of Darren Clarke, with a mention or two of Woods’ opening tee shot (a match that ended with an American win). But there was another big story playing itself out. Olazabal was back on the Ryder Cup scene after an absence of seven years going back to Brookline. Alongside him was another Spaniard, Garcia, and the younger was in his element.
Garcia was six under on his own by the time they shook hands with Brett Wetterich and David Toms at the 16th. Comparisons were immediately drawn with that other Spanish pairing – Garcia and Olazabal would also win the following day – but the only similarities appeared to be the nationalities (and the outcome).
“Seve and I were pretty much similar. We knew that when we were offline from the tee, we had to counteract that with a lot of guts and heart. Playing alongside Sergio, it’s like watching golf at its best. He’s just a different situation but I have to say, it’s a more relaxing one. Not so much excitement maybe,” explained Olazabal in 2006.
“I wouldn’t change all my experiences with Seve, you know, for anything. But having said that, playing alongside Sergio, the way he played, he’s as wonderful, too.”
And back to 2012 and this year’s PGA Championship. Garcia has slipped out of the automatic spots for Ryder Cup qualification and a wild card looks less likely. As worrying is that Garcia looks more unhappy than ever which, given his on-course demeanour in recent times, is saying something.
Over the past decade the beaming smile, bouncy gait and infectious humour has slowly been replaced by a seemingly ever-present scowl.
The putts haven’t dropped, that first Major remains elusive and, at Augusta this year, he insisted he wasn’t good enough to win a big one and that he needed to play for second or third.
Asked what he thought he was missing, he simply replied ‘everything’.
If anyone needed a hug it was Sergio. He and McIlroy had one on the Sunday at Augusta but that was more out of mock desperation after finally making a birdie.
He also needed a quiet word, enter Olazabal at Kiawah Island after that missed cut. The captain told his possible charge that his attitude was getting in the way of things and that he was being too hard on himself.
While most of the golfing world would have said the same, it struck home coming from one of his great friends.
The following week he won the Wyndham and he did it pretty much on his own, employing a friend to carry his clubs while he took care of all the yardages and work on the greens. The smile, finally, was back.
As is Sergio – and the whole of Europe will be right behind him.