The ovation was deafening as he walked off the final green on Sunday at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic, even louder and longer than the one he had received a few minutes earlier as he strode up the 18th fairway. Finally, the roaring crowd stood, perhaps as much to catch a glimpse of him as to express its admiration.
Which golfing great brought this Texas gallery to its feet? Was it Byron Nelson himself, the 87-year-old wizard of Waxahachie who tirelessly devotes his time to this tournament? Nope. Was it Tiger Woods, the former Nelson champ who sizzled during a first-round 61 but fizzled after a quadruple bogey on Saturday? Uh-uh. Could it have been the Boss of the Moss, Loren Roberts, who shot a brilliant 62 in the windy third round and on Sunday beat Steve Pate on the first hole of sudden death for a hard-earned victory? Sorry, wrong again.
No, the sun-toasted fans at the TPC at Las Colinas, in Irving, Texas, were letting it all hang out for a 5'10", 155-pound Spanish kid. They were cheering for 19-year-old Sergio Garcia, who was playing in his first Tour event since turning pro a month ago. Some in the crowd might have remembered Garcia's showing in April's Masters, in which he was the low amateur, but most of them were won over by what they had seen with their own eyes in Irving: long drives, a holed bunker shot, swashbuckling recoveries and a personal-best 62 in the first round. The fans also saw Garcia's innocence and sincerity. They could see it in his smile and in his wonderful manners. When he was introduced to Nelson on the 1st tee, for example, Garcia removed his cap and knelt before the older man, who was seated. Garcia knew that it was not his place to look down on a legend. Add it all up, and it comes out as charisma.
His nickname is El Ni�o, which is Spanish for the Boy. He has been a boy wonder since he was, well, even younger than he is now. He won the club championship at his home course, Mediterraneo Club de Golf, near Castell�n de la Plana, on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, when he was 12 and had a scratch handicap at 13. He won the European Amateur at 15 and the British Amateur last summer. He tied for third at the Nelson—with Chris DiMarco, Lee Janzen and Brian Watts—seven shots behind Roberts and Pate, but stole the show. "I watched him hit 10 shots on the range," one Tour veteran said glumly. "All 10 were better than my best 10. He's for real."
No one missed the symbolic implications of what happened last Saturday at the 17th hole, a nasty 171-yard par-3 where Fred Couples had lost the Nelson the year before by splashing his ball in the pond guarding the green. As Garcia stood on the tee, a stiff crosswind swept from left to right toward the water. The pin was back left. Woods and Pate, playing in the twosome behind Garcia, had caught up and were there to see Garcia punch a low, spinning five-iron shot that drew over the flag and checked up five feet from the hole. Pate turned to Woods and said, "He doesn't know he's not supposed to aim at that pin. He misses that by two yards, and he's making 5." Said Woods, "How good was that?"
The answer: damn good. A few minutes later, after Garcia had rolled in the birdie putt, Woods ballooned a six-iron into the pond. He dropped behind the hazard, bounced his next shot off the rocks and, to make a long story short, mindlessly batted it around a few more times for a demoralizing 7 That took him from 12 under and four shots out of the lead to eight under and out of the tournament.
Was what happened at 17 a defining moment, a harbinger of a season of change, or just one kid stiffing a shot while another kid watched? Either way, the forecast for El Ni�o is sunny and warm. "He's not your average 19-year-old," says Jerry Higginbotham, who tried out as Garcia's caddie last week after ending a five-year run with Mark O'Meara last month. "Sergio's going to win a lot of majors. He hits it extremely long, and I've never seen anybody hit the driver so straight. He's got the magic, no doubt about it. Once every 10 years someone like him comes along."
At least one pro disputed that notion. "Someone like Garcia might come along once every 20 years," said Joe Ogilvie, a Tour rookie who played the first two rounds with the Spaniard. "I don't think this week was a fluke. It wouldn't surprise me if Sergio won one of his first three or four tournaments. He's going to be one of those guys who can beat people by nine or 10 shots, like Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal did at the 1990 World Series of Golf. He's got a game like Tiger's. He could just blow away everybody."
Garcia hits the ball a little lower than Woods and is not quite as long off the tee. Garcia ranked 10th in driving distance last week with a 284.8-yard average, while Woods was second at 302.5. They are of about the same length with their irons. Garcia usually plays a draw, Woods a fade. Garcia is solid in every phase of the game, something last week's stats bore out. He ranked 16th in driving accuracy, 13th in greens hit in regulation and 12th in putts per green in regulation. "He's no whiz kid, chipping and putting from all over the place," says Peter Oosterhuis, the CBS announcer who played on six British Ryder Cup teams. "He hits the ball like a seasoned pro. He reminds me, obviously, of Tiger."
Last week Garcia seemed more like Tiger than Tiger. Woods blistered Cottonwood Valley Golf Club with his 61, his lowest round as a pro, on a windless day. He still seemed in control after a 67 at Las Colinas left him in a tie for the 36-hole lead with Pate, but that changed on Saturday when the wind came up. Woods was struggling before the disastrous quad—he had bogeyed two of the three holes leading up to 17—and his mounting frustration became evident moments after he drowned his tee shot at the par-3. Glancing at a TV camera, Woods mouthed an expletive as he ordered the cameraman out of his way.