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Child's Play
E.M. Swift
September 27, 1999
All tuned up for his first Ryder Cup, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia is making golf look easy—and fun
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September 27, 1999

Child's Play

All tuned up for his first Ryder Cup, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia is making golf look easy—and fun

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Garcia began winning over strangers while growing up in the small town of Borriol (pop. 3,000), which is on the Mediterranean coast, a couple of hours south of Barcelona. When he was still smaller than his own golf bag, he used to challenge members at Le Club de Golf del Mediterraneo to putting contests for Cokes. His father, Victor, has been the head pro there for 20 years, since the club opened, and his mother, Consuelo, runs the pro shop. They lived in an apartment a couple of miles from the course, so Sergio, who is the middle child of three kids, spent a lot of time at the club. "From the time he was tiny, he was very competitive and never intimidated," his father recalls. "He would walk up to anyone and say, 'Do you want to play for a Coke?' He'd never ask whether the person had a 2 or an 18 handicap. He had no fear. In the end, even if he lost, he got a Coke. He was a charming kid."

Back then Sergio dreamed of being a professional soccer player for Real Madrid. Golf was just for fun. When he was 10, he broke 80 for the first time and later won Spain's top under-12 tournament. At 12 he broke 70 and became the club champion. By the time he was 13, he was scratch, and Victor knew his son had the chance to be something special. "There are amateurs who are scratch but who will clearly always be amateurs," Victor says. "With Sergio, even when he was 13, he thought like a professional. He had incredible maturity."

Marquina, who has lived in Miami since 1990 but whose parents are members of the Club del Mediterraneo, suggested that Sergio start to play tournaments in the U.S. When Victor agreed, Marquina entered the 13-year-old in an under-18 tournament, the Palmetto Junior Classic, at a club near Miami. Sergio won by 14 strokes.

Victor, who was making his first trip to the U.S., was in tears after the tournament, thinking how his life had changed since he was a boy of 13. Victor had started working as a caddie when he was 11, and in those days caddies weren't allowed to play, or even practice, on most courses in Spain. The only time Victor could hit balls was very early in the morning, before the greenkeeper and the caddie master arrived at the course at around 7:30. Sometimes it was still dark when he and the other caddies got out there.

"I hadn't traveled much, so being in the United States was excitement enough," Victor says. "I'd been told so much about the best players being in the U.S. Then Sergio wins the tournament. Can you imagine? The happiness! It doesn't matter the level—the first tournament victory is the prettiest."

From that point Sergio's rise was meteoric. At 15 he competed in his first professional event, the 1995 Turespaña Open. That same year he won the European amateur. At 16 he played in his first British Open, shooting 76-73 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to miss the cut by six shots. Still an amateur at 17, Sergio won his first pro tournament, the 1997 Catalonian Open.

"When I was 18, I told my father I felt I could turn pro right now, that I had nothing else to learn from amateur golf," Garcia says. "But I wanted to play in the Masters." A win in either the U.S. or British Amateur carries with it an invitation to Augusta to play in a tournament that had been won by Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the two lions of Spanish golf. Garcia was willing to postpone his pro debut for a chance to follow in the footsteps of his idols.

"All three of them are very aggressive," says Marquina. "They're going to lose some tournaments because they're always looking at the pin, not the green—but they'll win more. They play with their soul. Seve told Sergio once, playing a shot is something that comes from your heart, not your mind."

Ballesteros, particularly, has been a guiding influence for Sergio, who says he is "like a second father." Victor is good friends with Seve's older brother, Baldomero, whom he'd played against when they were young. So when Sergio was 14, Victor took the liberty of asking Seve if he'd mind playing with his son at a tournament. "Ballesteros was very kind," Victor recalls. "He said he'd be happy to. He seems standoffish, but he's exactly the opposite when you get to know him. Once he's your friend, it's forever. Sergio was radiating happiness, and Seve gave him good advice, not only about his swing, but as a person and how to behave on the course."

"Ever since then we've made quite a golf couple," Sergio says. "I learned a lot from watching Seve, what a big fighter he is, to never give up. And also some magic shots. It doesn't matter from where—beside the green, behind a tree, in the bunker. He didn't teach me. It's something you can't teach. These shots are something that's inside of you, and you have to see them in your imagination. From watching Seve, I am now able to let this magic out."

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