Ryder Cup road leads Garcia back to memory-filled Medinah
After emerging from a period of reflection and self-doubt, the ever-popular Spaniard Sergio Garcia has looked back to his inspired best in the last 12 months, writes Will Pearson, a renaissance that has seen ‘El Niño’ claim a place in Team Europe and a return to the venue that helped launch his star so memorably 13 summers ago.
Great sportsmen and their careers are indubitably defined by moments and minutiae.
Moments of genius, moments of madness; moments of infinitesimally intricate skill and moments of awe-inspiring power, precision or pluck.
You think of Diego Maradona and the image of his mazy, dreamlike dribble through the heart of the England rear-guard in the 1986 World Cup springs to mind, as does the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal that preceded it; you think of Johnnie Wilkinson and you see the drop goal that won the Rugby World Cup in 2003; you think of John McEnroe and you visualise his three glorious Wimbledon titles and that “You cannot be serious” temper, as fiery red as the headband he perpetually sported.
For many, if not all, when they think of golf’s Sergio Garcia they will see a fresh-faced 19 year old, the boy from Castellón, Spain, filled with the exuberance of youth, bounding up the 16th fairway at Medinah Country Club; an unforgettable scissor-kick jump in time to see the ball that he had just miraculously evacuated from the roots of a tree reach the green.
Here was a young man, un luchador sin miedo; inspirado, apasionado – a fearless fighter; inspired, passionate, cast from the same dye as his Iberian forefathers before him; an Olazábal, a Seve.
His wild, eyes-closed, open-faced mid-iron slash and the vivacious reaction that followed ultimately proved in vain as a then-23 year old Tiger Woods completed his second Major Championship victory at the 1999 US PGA Championship, triumphing over the Spaniard by just a single shot. But the personality Garcia exhibited and the exhilarating manner in which he had attempted to track down the American in Illinois on that balmy summer’s day lit the blue touch paper under his career and continues to live long in the memory.
“That tree is not there anymore, I heard. I hit a six iron,” Garcia remembered. “I have great memories of Medinah; I was treated very nicely in 1999 and again there at the US PGA in 2006.
“I liked the course the way it was, the way I knew it. It's not quite the same now but it's like when you know someone and then they have a little surgery, you maybe don't quite recognise them.
“But it will be very fun going back there. Chicago is a city very into its sports. They are very passionate about their sport there, but I think it will be fine, there will be mutual respect for the teams and the sport.”
Garcia’s European odyssey had begun six weeks earlier, however, when he claimed his maiden Tour title in just his sixth professional start at the Irish Open at Druids Glen. His stunning performance there, and his second place heroics at the next month’s US PGA, earned him a debut berth in Mark James’ Ryder Cup team just months after ascending from the amateur ranks, the crowning glory of an astonishing dawn to his embryonic professional career and the beginning of Garcia’s love affair with the transatlantic clash.
At Brookline in 1999 Garcia, the youngest player to ever compete at a Ryder Cup before or since, flourished in the intimidating, cauldron atmosphere, forming a lucrative and undefeated partnership with Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik to claim three and a half points from a possible five as the United States narrowly prevailed.
Indeed, throughout his previous five Ryder Cup appearances it is the special camaraderie elicited by the Foursome and Fourball formats that has traditionally brought out the best in Garcia.
Three points followed in the 2002 contest at the Belfry as the first rendition of the Garcia/Westwood partnership came into fruition with three victories in four ties in the Fourballs and Foursomes.
In 2004, Garcia became one of only six players to claim four and a half points out of a possible five at Oakland Hills, while he was unbeaten on the first two days at The K Club in 2006 to become only the second European, after Ian Woosnam, to win four points from the foursomes and fourball matches in The Ryder Cup.
It was his partnerships with Westwood, with 2012 Captain and compatriot José María Olazábal, and moreover England’s Luke Donald, with whom he won four points from four foursomes matches in 2004 and 2006, that have stoked an unwavering fire within Garcia.
“It's unique, in so many ways, the team experience,” he reflected. “It's not like anything else. Every match is like the last nine holes of a major.
“The bond is so unique. I look at it like, if I'm playing with Luke – my closest friend out here – he is there for me no matter what. If I hit a bad shot, if I miss the ball, he is still there for me. He is my number one fan for that match, that day, that moment.”
It has not all been sunshine and light, though, since that golden advent in the summer of ’99, as a barren period of almost three years from late 2008 saw Garcia slip from World Number Two to outside of the top 75 in the Official World Golf Ranking in an interlude that left him unhappy and doubting himself.
After the heartbreak of missing out on a place in the European side at Celtic Manor two years ago he took up a role as one of Colin Montgomerie’s Vice Captains, an undertaking he describes as “an honour, but a difficult experience”, but Garcia remains wholly philosophical about the peaks and troughs inherent in professional sport.
He said: “Well, I think that you go through spots and through times in your career where obviously you have up and downs, you lose confidence. You wonder, 'Will I ever be me again?' And when you go on those downs obviously it's not much fun. But you kind of try to get through them. I guess that's why we love the game so much.
“It’s a hard game, but when you can do a couple things right, it also gives a lot back to you. You just keep practicing, keep trying hard, and just kind of wait for the right times to come around. You know it's pretty much as simple as that when you break it down.”
Perhaps thanks to such sentiments it has been a wholesale turnaround in Garcia’s fortunes, thankfully, in the last 12 months, as back-to-back triumphs in The European Tour’s Castelló and Andalucía Masters last October, plus a first win on the US PGA Tour in over four years at last month’s Wyndham Championship, have seen the Spaniard surge back into the top 20 in the world.
Perhaps Garcia also took heart from the some of the challenges and struggles that his hero Seve Ballesteros faced during his stellar career. He certainly embraces The Ryder Cup fervour that the Pedreña matador so frequently displayed.
“What Seve did for The Ryder Cup, how he got Europe going was just incredible,” Garcia said. “My first Ryder Cup that I saw in person was 1995 at Rochester when I was in the Junior Ryder Cup. I went to watch Seve.
“He knew me a little bit, he gave me a hug, we took a picture. I went to the international pavilion and saw all these people, singing, cheering for their teams, waving flags. ‘Wow, this is something,’ I thought, ‘I would like to be a part of this.’
“But José María has even more sense of Seve and his history than me. I am sure we will remember him in Chicago. There will probably be pictures of him in our room.”
There is certainly a Spanish flavour to The 2012 setup, as Olazábal Captains Garcia and co. with Miguel Ángel Jiménez at his side as one of four Vice Captains with the memory of Seve also set for a prevalent role in Chicago.
Spaniards have long brought character, personality and soul to Ryder Cup proceedings, ever since Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido became the first Continental Europeans to take on the Americans in 1979.
Paul McGinley, one of the other Vice Captains to Olazábal at Medinah, recently reminisced about the importance of youth in the balance of a Ryder Cup side and took time to reference Garcia’s Latino zeal and unbounded gusto at the 2002 encounter at the Belfry.
“The enthusiasm and the exuberance Sergio had in the team room was infectious,” said McGinley, who famously holed the winning putt for Europe that year. “It was his second Ryder Cup. I mean, this guy was manic about The Ryder Cup.
“Here he was playing 36 holes during the day, and when he got into the team room at night and we are all having dinner and all flaked out and knackered and trying to relax ourselves, there he was sitting in front of the TV watching three hours of highlights. Every time he was on TV he stood up and got everybody to watch the shot that he played. That kind of exuberance is infectious.”
Olazábal undoubtedly has an excellent mix of youthful verve and experience in his side in 2012, from 23 year old Rory McIlroy to 43 year old Paul Lawrie, and in the likes of Donald, Garcia, Poulter and Rose there is a middle ground of early-to-mid 30-somethings with a wonderful blend of Ryder Cup pedigree and desire, with Olazábal recently espousing the importance of the Spaniard’s “spirit” for and love of the contest.
And one look at Garcia’s formidable Ryder Cup record and you also realise why the European Captain was so desperate for his countryman to play a significant part in his tenure: 16 points strong, having only surrendered half a point in nine outings in the foursomes, he will be an unquestionable asset to his side in numerous ways.
Because now, returning to his most cherished event after a four year absence, Garcia is back. Thirteen years after the low fade that scuttled onto the 16th green of Medinah’s No. 3 Course and propelled El Niño into global consciousness, Garcia is back in the suburbs of northwest Chicago with Team Europe.
Now 32, not quite so young but battle-hardened and determined, here is the man from Castellón, Spain, un luchador sin miedo; inspirado, apasionado, cut from the same cloth as his Spanish idols and deities; an Olazábal, a Seve, back in the fold to create new moments of magic with which to define his career at Medinah.