Hombre, it's complicated." Sergio Garc�a, the kid golfer we like to think of as an irrepressible na�f, had that conflicted expression he gets now after a good tournament round—the smile that says, "My game is back," coupled with the darting eyes that ask where the next ambush is coming from. "It's complicated," Garc�a continued, "because as a professional I've never been in this situation. As you know, golf is a very difficult sport, and there are times when, without doing things badly, you don't achieve good results."
That's golf, all right. The game takes its freshest, most fearless spirits and wears them down through humiliation and disappointment. One day you've got some brash lovable sprout sprinting up a fairway and leaping like a gazelle—Garc�a on the 16th hole of last year's PGA Championship, where he lost to Tiger Woods by a stroke—the next, you've got a 20-year-old talking in the cadences of a middle-aged actuary.
It's not that the young Spaniard's year has been unrelievedly awful. He has three top 20 finishes in eight European tour events, and he was on the leader board for three rounds at St. Andrews before finishing 36th. But his play in the U.S. has been up and down: a first-round 82 at the Players Championship; a third-place finish at the Buick Classic; a 15-over-par performance at the U.S. Open. Almost every good round has been followed by something the cat dragged in. A month ago, in the second round of the Irish Open, Garc�a played a four-hole stretch in six over par and yelled, "This stupid game!" In the third round of the British Open he repeatedly cursed his luck, made faces and finally slammed one of his wedges into the ground, drawing a rebuke from the European tour's top rules official, John Paramor. "It was probably the unluckiest day I've had in my whole life," a solemn Garc�a said. "What can you do?"
S�, es complicado. But it's also to be expected. Garc�a has been a professional for only 16 months, and he is trying to establish himself on two continents. Many of the courses are new to him. Even the site of the Irish Open, which he won last summer in Dublin for his first European tour victory, wasn't familiar because the tournament moved this year to Ballybunion, on the Kerry coast. Every new green must be read and analyzed. Each strategic dogleg calls for a thought-out strategy. Garc�a has to learn all these things while working on his swing, tending to business, making commercials and, oh yeah, growing up.
This last requirement is the hardest. Last fall, a frustrated Garc�a yanked off one of his golf shoes and threw it during a tournament. He has since hired and fired two top-of-the-line caddies, suggesting that he doesn't take responsibility for his failures. "Things in general have not gone so well," Garc�a concedes, but "I've tried to maintain a maximum level of calm."
Roberto Gutierrez, one of Garc�a's managers, sees the young man's struggle as an unavoidable passage to maturity. "I don't call it a sophomore slump," Gutierrez says, "because he's really still a freshman." The goal is consistency—that blessed state in which a golfer's bad rounds result in 71s instead of 79s. The kid will get there, Gutierrez says, and when he does, "The valleys won't be as deep, and the mountains will always be as high, because that's his personality."
Woods did and said many of the same things during his second and third full seasons as a pro. He shot both low and high numbers, shouted profanities and pounded the ground with his driver. Woods, too, fired a caddie; he fired everybody, in fact, but his family and a couple of close friends. He did not look happy, but Woods knew he had entered the passage from arrogant youth to polished performer. When he sank the putt that beat Garc�a at Medinah, Woods slumped over his putter. Everybody said he looked old, and in a way he was. He was both a victim of golf's aging process and the beneficiary of its gifts.
Garc�a is not in Tiger's league as a life manager, but he is trying to learn from him. "Yes, it has been a little hard," Sergio said recently. "But I'm coming back. I tell myself, Hombre, no pasa nada [no big deal]. If things don't work out, there's another round to play tomorrow." Then he walked off, his step a little less springy than it was a year ago, his eyes less willing to lock with those of a stranger.
He is no longer El Ni�o, the kid. He is more like El Ni�o, the harbinger of storms. He's right. It's complicated.