Millennia are supposed to end on a note of tidy finality, but as
golf races to the year 2000, it gets more unpredictable and
fascinating by the day. Just when we'd gotten used to the
possibility of David Duval, not Tiger Woods, becoming the next
dominant player, the last three months have seen the game's
landscape further altered, this time by a 19-year-old Spaniard,
A coltish 5'10", 155-pounder, Garcia still fights a losing
battle with acne and is prepping for his driver's license test
in two weeks. He won't even get his high school diploma until
next May. All of which helps explain his nickname, El Nino,
Spanish for the Kid. But since turning pro in April after
finishing as low amateur (38th overall) at the Masters, Garcia
is quickly becoming the Man. In a span of just two weeks he has
jump-started the moribund European tour by winning the Irish
Open at Druids' Glen in Dublin on July 4, following up with an
opening-round 62 in the Standard Life Loch Lomond in Scotland
three days later and then finishing in a tie for second in that
event last Saturday. In only seven pro tournaments he has
virtually locked up a spot on the European Ryder Cup team--if he
doesn't make it on Cup points (he has climbed to seventh in the
standings), he'll almost surely be one of the two captain's
picks. He has also positioned himself to earn a PGA Tour card
for next year with his tie for third at the Byron Nelson and an
11th-place finish at the Memorial, which put him at 118th on the
U.S. money list at week's end. Along the way he has emerged as a
bona fide contender to win this week's British Open at Carnoustie.
"If I keep playing like I'm playing," says the baby-faced Garcia
in English that scarcely betrays his coastal Mediterranean
upbringing, "I will be up there at Carnoustie."
There's no boast about it. Garcia has shown that he can
routinely combine accurate and long driving (he was third
longest in the field at Loch Lomond) with finely wrought iron
approaches that leave him short birdie chances. When his
rhythmic putting stroke is on, Garcia becomes as explosive as
anyone this side of Woods and Duval. In the Irish Open, for
example, Garcia made two eagles on the back nine of the third
round to get within two shots of the lead, then closed the deal
with a frighteningly mature 64 to win by three. In Scotland,
Garcia had 23 birdies in four rounds and could have made more if
his short game hadn't suffered a few lapses. It was all
reminiscent of Woods's startling debut in his first eight weeks
on the PGA Tour at the end of 1996, when he too seemed to be
playing a less demanding game than the rest of the field.
This is not a complete surprise, of course. Garcia has been a
winner for a long time, having earned more than 70 victories as
an amateur, including the 1998 British Amateur. Given his
record, it's not so shocking that some of golf's leading
lights--including Woods himself--believe Garcia has more control
of the physical aspects of his game than Tiger had at the same
age. Some think he might have better decision-making skills too.
Jack Nicklaus, who invited Garcia to the Memorial in June and
then made a point of playing a practice round with him, says, "I
knew he was going to be good, but he's a little better than I
thought. It's his composure and the makeup of his whole game."
Seve Ballesteros, who has tried to do his part to lessen the
expectations placed on Garcia, nevertheless lapsed long enough
to allow that "Sergio has everything a champion needs.
And those impressions were recorded before Garcia's latest hot
streak. When Colin Montgomerie weighed in after his final-round
64 overtook Garcia at Loch Lomond for a three-stroke victory,
there was an additional point to be made. "Garcia has raised the
bar in Europe just as Woods did in America," said Monty, who is
closing in on his seventh consecutive Order of Merit, given to
the player who tops the money list in Europe. "They are very
similar in character, in ability and in their effect on the
other players. I played extra well today in part because I knew
it was Garcia I would have to beat."
Interestingly, Montgomerie had affirmed Garcia's elevated status
in a very different way two days earlier. Unprompted, the
Scotsman used a postround press conference to scold the young
Spaniard for being impertinent enough to agree with a questioner
that his first-round 62, in which he parred the last three
holes, could have been a 59. "I'm not here to say I'm going to
break 60, that's for sure," clucked Montgomerie before a
question could be asked. Garcia was taken aback by the rebuke,
pointing out he had never said he should have shot a 59. Just as
Woods took heat early in his pro career for saying that he had
won the 1997 Byron Nelson Classic with less than his A game,
Garcia too has become a lightning rod for telltale bolts of envy.
Garcia has been preparing for this moment almost since he began
playing, at age four, under the tutelage of his father, Victor,
the pro at the Mediterraneo Golf Course in Castellon. In
competition Garcia is a study in sober confidence, whether he's
showing his characteristic boldness on a par-5 or accepting,
with unaffected poise, the boisterous reception of the crowd.
Away from the course, he truly becomes El Nino, flipping a
yo-yo, playing video games, or bashfully flirting with the young
girls who clamor for his autograph. When his manager, longtime
family friend Jose Marquina, firmed up a long-term deal with
Adidas, Garcia didn't ask how much it was for, but rather when
he could meet his new sneaker-company stablemate, Anna Kournikova.
Garcia's playful nature emerged again after his victory in
Dublin. He and his father and Marquina had made a pact after the
Masters that they would all cut their hair short to mark
Sergio's first win as a pro. Garcia brandished the electric
clippers but assured the well-coiffed older men that he would
let them off the hook with a trim at a comfortable setting of
four millimeters (about a quarter of an inch). Garcia then
secretly changed the setting and quickly mowed a to-the-nub
swath down the middle of his father's head. Immediate horror
gave way to nonstop laughter that didn't subside until all three
had burr cuts.
"Sergio's character is to enjoy life as he enjoys golf, the good
with the bad," says Victor Garcia. "I know success will bring
new difficulties, but I trust his basic character. He will find
his way to enjoy it."
Still, the scrutiny has begun to intensify, with the favorite
subject being Garcia's distinctive downswing. By dropping his
arms at the beginning of the downswing, he is able to increase
his wrist-cock and attack the ball as if he were cracking a
whip. It's the main source of Garcia's power, but several
admirers, including Johnny Miller, believe he will have to
temper this "lag" (much as Woods has "rounded" his approach to
the ball) or be doomed to fighting wild shots under pressure.
"Sergio's move reminds me of Bobby Clampett, who was as good a
teenage golfer as ever played," says Miller. "But that steep
angle of attack didn't hold up as a pro, because it's built on
youth and timing more than solid technique."
Perhaps, but Jesper Parnevik, who was paired with Garcia in the
final two rounds at Loch Lomond, saw no hint of impending
trouble. "Every other player his age I've ever seen has bad
shots in his bag, the kind that ruin rounds," said Parnevik.
"But Sergio doesn't have any bad shots. He might hit some better
than others, but he doesn't have a bad shot he has to be afraid
Garcia is blithe in his agreement. Asked if he has ever
experienced a slump, he says, "No, my game has always been quite
good." Accordingly, he is eager to go up against the very best,
although he is still unsure whether he will play the European or
American tour next year or split time between the two. Until
then, Garcia will meet Woods and Duval at Carnoustie, the PGA
Championship and probably in the Ryder Cup.
Whatever happens, it's a good bet that the battle over who will
rule golf will carry into the next millennium. If Garcia
continues at the rate he's going, the so-called Showdown at
Sherwood, a two-man exhibition between Duval and Woods on Aug.
2, may be wanting for a third.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND YOU DA KID Since turning pro after the Masters, the player known as El Nino has wowed Europe.