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It's dusk on the Monday before the Players Championship, and Sergio García is running full speed on a soccer pitch. The lights have come on at Davis Park in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and García is in command, shouting to his manager in Spanish and at Ricky Barnes in English, weaving among sunburned caddies and weathered barkeeps, the ball an extension of his bright red cleats. When his team is awarded a free kick, García is the one to take it. He is 20 yards from the goal, but the shot might as well be a tap-in putt. He races toward the ball, bends it leftfooted and watches it crash into the net. Golfers-caddies 1, Lynch's Irish Pub 0. "Surprisingly skillful for a professional golfer," says Keith Doherty, originally from Belfast, the manager of Lynch's and a referee for the match. "I was like, Man, this guy can ball."
In the two years since García won the Players—his last PGA Tour victory—soccer has been one of the few things he can count on, more forgiving than golf, steadier than any romance.
It's the game he and his father and coach, Victor, discuss over long-distance calls. The game García hugs tightly whether he is winning golf tournaments or suffering through dry spells. El Niño is 30 now, eons removed from the teenager who hit off tree roots at Medinah. He has lost majors, lovers and, on the golf course of late, his way.
"We're the young guys with gray hair," Adam Scott, 29, says of himself and García, friends and former Players winners with similar career arcs. "We've been pretty lucky, but we've also gone through the low times. I played with him on Saturday at Augusta, and he obviously was struggling: That was clear. He didn't enjoy himself on the course. I can relate."
Like Scott, García finds himself on the fringes of the game's elite, caught between the insurmountable peak of Tiger versus Phil and the oncoming tidal wave of Rory and Ryo. Sergio has been at this for so long—to and fro across the Atlantic, dancing at the Ryder Cup, getting stomped at the Ryder Cup, a foil to Tiger—that he can't help but reflect on the happiness and heartache of his golfing life. He can go from sounding like a sage one minute to a homesick kid at sleepaway camp the next. It's in his makeup, the emotion, in good times and bad.
"It's always hard to be far from home, but this is the life I chose, and I don't regret it," García says. "But I do love going back home and playing soccer and playing tennis and simply hanging out with my family and friends. I enjoy time off the golf course. It's the life I chose, and I have to do my best to enjoy it as much as possible."
Alvaro Quiros, also from Spain, has seen García up close and from a distance and watched the ebbs and flows of his countryman's career. "He used to be second in the world, and everyone wanted to see him as the opposite of Tiger, but it's not that easy," Quiros says. "Nike, Tiger. Adidas, Taylor Made, Sergio. Opposite. We are speaking about the greatest player of the world in history, Tiger. This is a very, very heavy stone."
Who could have predicted a decline for García after winning the Players in a playoff over Paul Goydos, a victory marked by exquisite ball striking and stretches of sublime putting? In the gloaming that year García climbed the stairs of the giant TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, thanked Tiger for skipping the tournament, accepted the trophy from Phil and kissed it like a newborn. A couple of hours later he was at Lynch's Irish Pub, with its dollar bills on the ceiling, live music in the corner and soccer players behind the bar. García signed autographs and partied into the night.
His great play continued through the summer, but it took him only so far. That August, in the final round of the PGA Championship, García dumped an approach shot into the water on Oakland Hills' 16th and watched Padraig Harrington take a major from him for the second straight year. In García's next start, at the Barclays, Vijay Singh rolled in a bomb and beat him in a playoff. That September at the Tour Championship, García lost yet another playoff, this one to Camilo Villegas. He had to settle for a great year, not the career-defining one that was only a few strokes away.
Then came García's heartbreak off the course, the end of his three-year relationship with Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan-Leigh, in March 2009. "Probably the first time I have been really in love," he said at the time.