Millennia are supposed to end on a note I of tidy finality, but as golf races to the year 2000, it gets more unpredictable and fascinating by the day. Just when we'd gotten used to the possibility of David Duval, not Tiger Woods, becoming the next dominant player, the last three months have seen the game's landscape further altered, this time by a 19-year-old Spaniard, Sergio Garcia.
A coltish 5'10", 155-pounder, Garcia still fights a losing battle with acne and is prep-ping for his driver's license test in two weeks. He won't even get his high school diploma until next May. All of which helps explain his nickname, El Ni�o, Spanish for the Kid. But since turning pro in April after finishing as low amateur (38th overall) at the Masters, Garcia is quickly becoming the Man. In a span of just two weeks he has jump-started the moribund European tour by winning the Irish Open at Druids' Glen in Dublin on July 4, following up with an opening-round 62 in the Standard Life Loch Lomond in Scotland three days later and then finishing in a tie for second in that event last Saturday. In only seven pro tournaments he has virtually locked up a spot on the European Ryder Cup team—if he doesn't make it on Cup points (he has climbed to seventh in the standings), he'll almost surely be one of the two captain's picks. He has also positioned himself to earn a PGA Tour card for next year with his tie for third at the Byron Nelson and an 11th-place finish at the Memorial, which put him at 118th on the U.S. money list at week's end. Along the way he has emerged as a bona fide contender to win this week's British Open at Carnoustie.
"If I keep playing like I'm playing," says the baby-faced Garcia in English that scarcely betrays his coastal Mediterranean upbringing, "I will be up there at Carnoustie."
There's no boast about it. Garcia has shown that he can routinely combine accurate and long driving (he was third longest in the field at Loch Lomond) with finely wrought iron approaches that leave him short birdie chances. When his rhythmic putting stroke is on, Garcia becomes as explosive as anyone this side of Woods and Duval. In the Irish Open, for example, Garcia made two eagles on the back nine of the third round to get within two shots of the lead, then closed the deal with a frighteningly mature 64 to win by three. In Scotland, Garcia had 23 birdies in four rounds and could have made more if his short game hadn't suffered a few lapses. It was all reminiscent of Woods's startling debut in his first eight weeks on the PGA Tour at the end of 1996, when he too seemed to be playing a less demanding game than the rest of the field.
This is not a complete surprise, of course. Garcia has been a winner for a long time, having earned more than 70 victories as an amateur, including the 1998 British Amateur. Given his record, it's not so shocking that some of golf's leading lights—including Woods himself—believe Garcia has more control of the physical aspects of his game than Tiger had at the same age. Some think he might have better decision-making skills too.
Jack Nicklaus, who invited Garcia to the Memorial in June and then made a point of playing a practice round with him, says, "I knew he was going to be good, but he's a little better than I thought. It's his composure and the makeup of his whole game." Seve Ballesteros, who has tried to do his part to lessen the expectations placed on Garcia, nevertheless lapsed long enough to allow that "Sergio has everything a champion needs. Everything."
And those impressions were recorded before Garcia's latest hot streak. When Colin Montgomerie weighed in after his final-round 64 overtook Garcia at Loch Lomond for a three-stroke victory, there was an additional point to be made. "Garcia has raised the bar in Europe just as Woods did in America," said Monty, who is closing in on his seventh consecutive Order of Merit, given to the player who tops the money list in Europe. "They are very similar in character, in ability and in their effect on the other players. I played extra well today in part because I knew it was Garcia I would have to beat."
Interestingly, Montgomerie had affirmed Garcia's elevated status in a very different way two days earlier. Unprompted, the Scotsman used a postround press conference to scold the young Spaniard for being impertinent enough to agree with a questioner that his first-round 62, in which he parred the last three holes, could have been a 59. "I'm not here to say I'm going to break 60, that's for sure," clucked Montgomerie before a question could be asked. Garcia was taken aback by the rebuke, pointing out he had never said he should have shot a 59. Just as Woods took heat early in his pro career for saying that he had won the 1997 Byron Nelson Classic with less than his A game, Garcia too has become a lightning rod for telltale bolts of envy.
Garcia has been preparing for this moment almost since he began playing, at age four, under the tutelage of his father, Victor, the pro at the Mediterraneo Golf Course in Castell�n. In competition Garcia is a study in sober confidence, whether he's showing his characteristic boldness on a par-5 or accepting, with unaffected poise, the boisterous reception of the crowd. Away from the course, he truly becomes El Ni�o, flipping a yo-yo, playing video games, or bashfully flirting with the young girls who clamor for his autograph. When his manager, longtime family friend Jose Marquina, firmed up a long-term deal with Adidas, Garcia didn't ask how much it was for, but ramer when he could meet his new sneaker-company stablemate, Anna Kournikova.
Garcia's playful nature emerged again after his victory in Dublin. He and his father and Marquina had made a pact after the Masters that they would all cut their hair short to mark Sergio's first win as a pro. Garcia brandished the electric clippers but assured the well-coiffed older men that he would let them off the hook with a trim at a comfortable setting of four millimeters (about a quarter of an inch). Garcia then secretly changed the setting and quickly mowed a to-the-nub swath down the middle of his father's head. Immediate horror gave way to nonstop laughter that didn't subside until all three had burr cuts.