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 Ni√±o 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.
García, the best long-straight driver since Morgan-Leigh's dad, admitted that his head wasn't into golf and soon was scattering tee shots. His scores rose, and his confidence dipped. A month after the breakup he shot 75--74 on the weekend at the Masters—the tournament that has defined Spain's golfing heroes, Seve Ballesteros and Jose María Olààbal, more than any other. Despondent, García said of Augusta National, "I don't like it, to tell you the truth. I don't think it's fair. It's too much of a guessing game. I don't care; they can do what they want. I simply come here and play and then go home." He was a man with a dark cloud over his head. At Lynch's, García's soccer pals had their own diagnosis: "The putter's killing him."
For García, the fog still hasn't completely lifted, despite a fourth-place finish at the Accenture Match Play Championship in February. In recent weeks he has been experimenting with an interlocking grip—no small adjustment even for a professional.
"It feels as if [the interlocking grip] keeps my hands a little more together," García says. "Unfortunately, because I've played my whole life with either a 10-finger or an overlap [grip], I don't have enough strength in the three fingers that you use when you interlock it, and it feels quite weak. I think if I manage to work it and it gets to the point where it works really good and I play a couple of tournament rounds and it feels good out there, I might change it because I like the way it feels when I practice with it."
At the Players, though, it was the overlap grip, and García made the cut comfortably with rounds of 69 and 70. Though he finished 47th, he played with a smile, a marked difference from the slumped shoulders of the last year. "I'm not going to lie to you," García said after a third-round 71. "I'm not having the best time golfwise. You're never bulletproof. When things are going right on and off the course, everything seems to be fine, but if things aren't, it can play with your head and things get tougher."
Is he close to his 2008 Players form? "I'm close," Garcia says, "but I'm not close close."
Lee Westwood, who has returned from his own precipitous fall, predicts that García will be back. "He's simply a bit short of confidence at the moment."
And then there are the lads at Lynch's, who played García and his soccer team to a 3--3 draw, though Doherty says there was a scoring dispute. Not to worry. The two sides have agreed to a rematch before the 2011 Players. All things considered, Sergio would be happy to lose the football match if he could return to Lynch's on Sunday night to celebrate a different victory.
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Curse of the Players
Sergio García, winless since taking the 2008 Players, is one of many Tour pros who have gone into a funk after a victory at Sawgrass. Here's a sampling | D.S.
Known for his bucket hat, Hayes beat Mike McCullough by two shots in a career-defining, and final, Tour victory. He's played 94 Champions tour events but never won.
Plagued by shoulder problems, Pate won seven times before the Players, and not once after. The 1976 U.S. Open champion has won twice as a senior, the 2006 Outback Steakhouse and the '08 Turtle Bay.
A year after this 12-time Tour winner's most prestigious win, Peete was sidelined for six months by a back injury. After two more victories in 1986, he never won again and was off the Tour by 1990.
Not long after holding off Mark Calcavecchia by a stroke at the Players, Mudd burned out and more or less retired. He ran a horse farm and worked in real estate but made his Champions tour debut this year.
Injuries and ailments kept the sweet-swinging Elk, who shot four rounds in the 60s in his '97 win, from reaching his potential. The 48-year-old lost his card last year.
The top-ranked player in the world when he won the Players, Double D would claim only three more titles—including the 2001 British Open—before his game collapsed in spectacular fashion.
After taking down Tiger at Sawgrass, Mr. Be The Right Club Today could muster only two more wins and would rather forget his disastrous '04 Ryder Cup captaincy.
Perks's career submarined following his all-world 3-2-4 finish at the Players. He never won again and retired, at age 40, after making the cut only once in the 2006 and '07 seasons.
Yes, he got up and down for a gutsy bogey on the 72nd hole to win, but the water ball on the home hole should've been a red flag. He's won four times since but is still perceived as an underachiever.
The eccentric Swede had a wonderful ball-striking week at Sawgrass and seemed to be on the verge of a run, but he hasn't won on the European tour or in the U.S. since.
ROUGH GOING Once one of the straightest long drivers on Tour, García ranks 92nd in total driving this year and has only one top 10 finish in nine starts. He came in 47th at the Players.
TONY TOMSIC (HAYES)
TONY TRIOLO (PATE)
AUGUSTA NATIONAL/GETTY IMAGES (PEETE)
JIM GUND (MUDD)
JACUELINE DUVOISIN (ELKINGTON)
BOB MARTIN (DUVAL)
DAVID WALBERG (SUTTON, PERKS)
PHIL COALE/AP (SCOTT)
FRED VUICH (STENSON)
COURTESY OF KEITH DOHERTY
PITCH PERFECT Soccer and family are welcome distractions for García, who got his kicks during a pickup game on the Monday before the Players.