The New year arrived with last week's Mercedes Championships, and not a moment too soon. Out with the old, in with the bold, as 2001's seemingly endless fizzle was finally washed away.
Last year's most hotly anticipated event, the Ryder Cup, was postponed due to the events of Sept. 11, while the glitzy American Express Championship was canceled. Robbed of these finishing flourishes, the final 3� months of 2001 were flatter than a flute of day-old champagne. Some of the Mercedes' themes may have been eerily familiar—Tiger Woods was lackluster, and Phil Mickelson was lacking altogether—but the resolution of the new year's first tournament left a bubbly feeling, thanks to the reappearance of golf's hottest players.
With his stirring sudden-death victory, Sergio Garc�a won his third Tour event since May, a number equaled only by David Toms, the man Garc�a vanquished with a birdie on the first extra hole at Kapalua's Plantation course on Maui, Hawaii. "You can't dream of a better way to start the year," Garc�a said, speaking for all of us.
For Garc�a, the Mercedes was the latest milestone in his remarkable maturation. His numbers last year—sixth on the money list, third in scoring average—tell only part of the tale. With his buggy-whip swing and endless fidgeting, Garc�a will never be mistaken for one of the game's premier technicians, but he surely has become golf's greatest showman. If Woods's calling card is the machinelike blowout, Garc�a channels the artistry and hot-blooded bravado of the toreador. His last four victories have been thrilling mano a manos, during which he has slain a quartet of the game's elite: Mickelson at the Colonial (with a final-round 63), Retief Goosen at the Troph�e Lanc�me (a comeback from four strokes down with four holes to play), Ernie Els at the Nedbank Golf Challenge (a sudden-death chip-in), and now Toms.
Garc�a's New Year's resolution was to become the first man to lead the money list on both the U.S. and European tours, and this goal suddenly seems like more than the bluster of youth. Garc�a has long relied on a robust long game, and the key blow in his final-round 64 at Kapalua was a mighty three-wood that set up a pivotal eagle on the 9th hole (opposite). But Garc�a has developed into a polished all-around player. Amidst ever-changing gales he masterfully controlled the trajectory of his irons while playing an artful variety of shots, and he reaffirmed on Sunday that no one putts better in the clutch.
Garc�a's third Tour victory was worth $720,000. "I'm leading the money list right now?' he says.
Garc�a turned 22 on Wednesday. By his 22nd birthday Woods had six Tour victories, including the 1997 Masters. A year ago it was easy to believe that Woods was twice as good as Garc�a, but the gap is narrowing. Garc�a's development could be the story of 2002, a season mat's but one week old, yet already full of intrigue.