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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 won the 1998 British Amateur, earning his invitation to the '99 Masters. (He later lost in the semifinals of the '98 U.S. Amateur after knocking off defending champion Matt Kuchar. Over the last three years he's put together a 38-2 match-play record, which bodes well for him at the Ryder Cup.) Garcia finished his amateur career at the Masters, making the cut and becoming the first European to be low amateur, ending up in a tie for 38th.

Immediately afterward he turned pro, selecting the Spanish Open to make his debut. He finished a respectable 25th. Team Garcia had decided that Sergio should split his time between the U.S. Tour, where he could try to earn his card by finishing in the top 125 on the money list, and the European tour, where he might catch the eye of Ryder Cup captain Mark James. In his first stop on the PGA Tour, in May, he shot an opening-round 62 at the Byron Nelson Invitational, eventually finishing in a tie for third. Against another strong field at the Memorial, the 19-year-old was 11th. In his sixth pro start he won the Irish Open by three shots on July 4, closing with a final-round 64. The next week he finished in a second-place tie at Loch Lomond. The kid was for real, all right, and suddenly one of the favorites going into the British Open.

Which is why his rounds of 89-83 at Carnoustie were so shocking. "There were too many expectations," Garcia says. "You have to be a little lucky on links courses, and I was very unlucky. My good shots were turning out bad, and my bad shots were turning into triple bogey. But you know what? I don't care. You tell me I finish last in the British Open, and everything else happens the way it did the rest of the year, that's fine with me."

Suerte o muerte. What golfer doesn't the a thousand deaths? "The important tiling was the way he came back in his next major," says McNickle. "He shoots 66 to take the first-round lead in the PGA. Then when someone asks him what happened at the British Open, he says, 'I think I just answered that. Next question.' I loved that."

His second-place finish at Medinah vaulted him to 55th on the PGA Tour money list, meaning he had accomplished both of his goals after turning pro. In only 14 events, he earned enough points to qualify for the Ryder Cup in Europe and enough money to play in America next year if he so desires.

Still, there are those who worry—golf analyst Johnny Miller has talked about this—that Garcia's unorthodox swing will lead to problems when he loses some of his youthful flexibility. Sergio's weight transfer at the top is lightning fast, and he drops his hands unusually low on the downswing, cocking his wrists to generate more power in a move reminiscent of Hogan's swing. "His swing path is so shallow, he gets into problems hitting out of the rough, where I've seen him cold top the ball a couple of times," says noted swing guru David Leadbetter. "It's a swing that looks more handsy and wristy than the modern swing, almost like it was developed in the age of hickory shafts. As Sergio gets older, he'll probably make some subtle changes. But all of them do. There's a lot more to this kid than technique. He's got a great mind-set, a great short game, and he manages the course well. It's like he's got a 30-year-old head on a 19-year-old body."

"I never followed Hogan," says Victor, who has recently seen pictures of the four-time U.S. Open champion's swing next to that of his son, and acknowledges they are similar. "That was purely accidental. Sergio's swing is a natural movement, and he's made it all his life."

Sergio isn't about to tinker with success. "I've heard people say my swing's not perfect, and I know that," he says. "But golf's a natural sport, very sensitive. It's played a lot by feel. I don't care if my swing is too flat. If it works, I don't have to change it."

That natural approach applies to the time he spends on the driving range as well. "I've never been one to hit a lot of balls on the practice tee," Garcia says. "At this point what's most important isn't practicing, it's letting your body recover from too much golf. When you're resting, that's when you really improve."

That's why, on a recent trip home, he spent his free time playing tennis and soccer with friends instead of padding his bank account with corporate outings. "Money's not the issue with us," says Marquina, who has signed only two endorsement contracts for Sergio, one with Adidas and one with Acushnet, for a reported total of about $10 million. "We're not going to overexpose him. In Sergio's family the goal was always to be the Number 1 golfer in the world, not to make the most money. He has to do normal teenage things. There's no marketing plan here. I never tell him how to act. I never said, 'Tip your hat to the crowds.' He just does it. People think that when he ran up the fairway on 16, that's the first time he's done that. But I have a tape of him doing exactly the same thing at a tournament in Manila, chasing a blind three-iron shot on the 18th hole. It's wrong when they write we should enjoy Sergio while we can, before he changes. He won't change."

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