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TALK Of the Town
Gary Van Sickle
June 24, 2002
Sergio Garc�a added personality, controversy and celebrity to the mix at Bethpage, creating a buzz the New York fans that often came back to zap him
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June 24, 2002

Talk Of The Town

Sergio Garc�a added personality, controversy and celebrity to the mix at Bethpage, creating a buzz the New York fans that often came back to zap him

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Three years ago you wanted to adopt him. He was the Kid, El Ni�o and a breath of fresh air. At the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah he hit an impossible shot from behind a tree root with his eyes closed, then ran excitedly across the fairway and jumped up to see where the ball went, just as a kid would do. It was cute. He was 19 and having way too much fun, while also giving Tiger Woods a bit of a scare. That week, at that moment, Sergio Garc�a became a star.

Last week you wanted to spank him. He was the Baby, El Whi�o, a blast of hot air. When the Black course at Bethpage kicked his butt during a rainy, raw second round, he blamed others, including Woods and the USGA, which was just what a kid would do. It wasn't pretty. He was 22 and having no fun at the 102nd U.S. Open, at which he gave Woods another mild scare. At that moment Garc�a was in danger of going from hero to villain, like a pro wrestler with a suddenly new script.

Welcome to New York, kid. You should've seen this coming. Actually, Garc�a did. Asked about the New York fans before the Open, he said, "They like to talk. There's no doubt about that. That's just the way New Yorkers are."

They don't just like to talk, Sergio. They like to talk back, as the catcalls—"C'mon, show us your waggle!" "Your girlfriend has more majors than you!"—showed.

Woods stole the Open trophy, Phil Mickelson stole the hearts of the fans, and Garc�a stole the headlines last week. The truth is, though, that even while Garc�a was coming off as a superbrat and the crowds weren't sure whether to love him, hate him or heckle him, the Open wouldn't have been nearly as interesting without him. He brought personality, controversy and celebrity (especially since girlfriend Martina Hingis followed him every step of the way).

Everyone hoped that someone would make Woods work for the second leg of the Grand Slam, and a few players tried. Some of them were surprises, such as whatever-happened-to types like 44-year-old Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner who took advantage of a special exemption offered by the stunningly prescient USGA to shoot his lowest score (a four-under 66) in an Open in the third round and tie for fifth, and the quiet Jeff Maggert, 38, who had beaten Woods en route to the 1999 World Match Play title but had barely been heard from since. Maggert found his old seamless swing, shot a 68 in the third round and finished third.

Some of the challengers were the usual suspects. Mickelson, as usual, showed up at another major with his A game but—Holy Bruce Crampton!—was the runner-up in the Open for the second time in four years. Then there was Garc�a, who has the chutzpah to take on Woods but not the patience or the putting stroke. He was four shots back going into the final round and failed to make a move, struggling to a 74 and a fourth-place finish even while Woods faltered a bit with a closing 72. Garc�a should've paid closer attention to the preround advice given to him by his father and coach, Victor: "No putts, no possible to make birdies."

This Open qualified as a learning experience for Garc�a. The Spaniard has a chance to be to Woods what Johnny Miller or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson was to Jack Nicklaus. Garc�a won the first PGA Tour event of the season, the Mercedes Championships, and followed with a win at the European tour's Spanish Open a few months later. Also a contender at the Masters—he wound up eighth, eight shots behind Woods—Garc�a has made a convincing case that he has inherited the mantle of 38-year-old Colin Montgomerie as the second-best player never to have won a major, a label that's hardly a worry for a 22-year-old.

Like Montgomerie, Garc�a antagonized the crowd while suffering a bout of spikes-in-mouth disease. On Friday, Woods played in the morning session, which proved to be a break. Rain and wind swept in early in the round, but Woods played well, shooting a two-under 68 even though he had to turn his baseball cap backward while he putted so that water wouldn't drip off the brim and distract him. Garc�a had an afternoon start and got the brunt of worse weather. The rain and wind intensified, and the temperature dropped enough that the players could see their breath most of the afternoon. Garc�a struggled to a 74 and afterward vented in made-to-order sound bites. Here are the highlights, ranked in order of churlishness (with accompanying commentary, where appropriate).

1. "If Tiger Woods had been out there, I think [play] would have been called." (Wrong. We play real golf, said USGA types, who cited ample reasons for continuing.)

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