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Original Issue

Whither El Nino? For Sergio Garcia, nothing has proved more difficult than growing up

Hombre, it's complicated." Sergio Garcia, the kid golfer we like
to think of as an irrepressible naif, 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,"
Garcia 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--Garcia 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, Garcia 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 Garcia said. "What can you do?"

Si, es complicado. But it's also to be expected. Garcia 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. Garcia 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
Garcia 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," Garcia
concedes, but "I've tried to maintain a maximum level of calm."

Roberto Gutierrez, one of Garcia'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 Garcia 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.

Garcia 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 Nino, the kid. He is more like El Nino, the
harbinger of storms. He's right. It's complicated.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Garcia cursed his luck, made faces and slammed his wedge into the ground, drawing a rebuke from the European tour's top rules official.