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SI FOR KIDS
For un momento last week, a Nike tour newcomer had Casey Martin playing second violin. It happened when a dashing, crewcut teenager named Sergio Garcia shot past Martin to take the second-round lead at Club Campestre in Monterrey, Mexico. Garcia would falter and finish six shots behind winner Joe Ogilvie in the Nike Monterrey Open, but what fanaticos de golf will remember is the way the 18-year-old amateur from Castellon, Spain, pounded 330-yard drives, left senoritas swooning and had grown men spouting superlatives.
"Sergio is long, superlong," says junior golf official Pete Wofford, who watched Garcia cruise to victory two weeks ago in the Future Collegians World Tour event in Jacksonville. In Monterrey, Garcia averaged 310 yards per drive and had one breeze-assisted blast of 371.
Back home they call him el Niño. The name has nothing to do with devilish weather; in fact it carries a whiff of the divine, for the term el Niño, the Boy, usually refers to the Christ child. Young Garcia may have run out of miracles in Mexico, but his career to this point would suit an immortal. The son of Victor Garcia, a caddie turned teaching pro at Mediterraneo Club de Campo, and his wife, Consuelo, who ran the pro shop, Sergio took up golf at age three. As an eight-year-old, using full-sized Cobra clubs that gave him one of the world's flattest swings, the boy swung hard and pictured himself as Indiana Jones cracking a bullwhip. "He had all the ability, and he knew it," says Sergio's caddie and friend, José Marquina. "So aggressivehe never thought of hitting at the green, only the flag. Even as a little boy he was determined to be Number 1 in the world."
At 12 he was club champion. At 15 he became the youngest European Amateur champ in the tournament's history. The next year Sergio got the Leo DiCaprio treatment at the World Amateur Team Championship in the Philippines, where he was pursued by 100 or so teenage girls calling, "Sergio, Sergio!" By then he had also caught the eye of national hero Seve Ballesteros, who asked him along for two practice rounds before the 1996 British Open. The nerveless Garcia outdrove his hero on every hole. Ballesteros, who has called Garcia Spain's "player of the 21st century," recently worried publicly about the boy's future. In a newspaper editorial he urged Garcia, who considers Ballesteros his second dad, to "stay the same person" as he scales the heights of golf stardom.
Another of the teen's idols is Tom Lehman, who met Garcia at the '96 British Open. After winning the tournament, Lehman put the Claret Jug in Garcia's hands and said, "Someday you will win this."
Asked about Garcia last week at Bay Hill, Lehman said, "Sergio, he takes it deep. He's a cocky kid who thinks he can beat the world, and he might be right."
Garcia played like a worldbeater last summer at the European Masters Amateur, winning by eight strokes. He won the Spanish Amateur by 10. At the Grand Prix des Landes in France, where the runner-up was one under par, Garcia was 20 under. At the Catalonian Open in Barcelona he finished five shots ahead of 132 pros to become the first amateur to win the event.
Last week it appeared he might slam-dunk a field of 143 Nike tour pros. After a 66-67 start, Garcia was seven ahead of Martin, the tour's money leader, and led the Monterrey Open by one. "I couldn't visualize this great start," he said. "I was so excited to see my name on the leader board." So excited he couldn't sleep all night? Not quite. "He always sleeps like a rock. I have to yell, 'Sergio, Sergio!' to wake him," Marquina says.
Maybe the yelling gave Garcia nightmares of being chased by flocks of girls. In any case, golf's latest Next Tiger failed to earn his stripes in Mexico: He ballooned to 75 on Saturday to drop from contention. On Sunday, though, he rallied for a 72 that left him at eight under, a showing that would have been worth $2,875 had he been a pro.
"He didn't know the greens here. If he had made a third of his putts inside 10 feet, he'd have won by five shots," said tournament director Barry Willardson. Garcia, who expects to turn pro next year and play the European tour before taking a shot at the U.S. PGA Tour, made no excuses. "I am disappointed," he said in fluent English, "but I will be back." Recalling his Friday-night lead, the Nike Niño was as cocky as ever. "It's not normal for someone so young to be on top of the leader board," he said. "Not normal, but comfortable."
Then it was back to the hotel, where he indulged his only vice: marathon sessions in front of the TV, watching cartoons. Asked to name a favorite, he uses fluent Roadrunnerese: "Meep-meep!"
Catch him if you can. Sergio Garcia may be 0 for 1 against U.S. pros for the moment, but he's going places fast.
Issue date: March 30, 1998
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