Young Garcia is considered old-timer at golf

Sunday, April 02, 2006
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

Just look at him.

Sergio Garcia was a teenager when he played his first Masters in 1999. Shortly after, he turned professional and took a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship at Medinah. He's made the top 10 twice at Augusta National.

(Annette M. Drowlette/Staff)

The boyish good looks and the radiant smile - Sergio Garcia still exudes the El Nio persona he's famous for.

Just look at his record.

With 16 worldwide wins and 29 major championship appearances, Garcia is hardly a kid anymore.

Barely 26 years old, Garcia will be making his eighth consecutive Masters start since debuting as a teenage rookie in 1999. It's hard to believe that his first major appearance was 10 years ago at the 1996 British Open.

"That's what happens," Garcia said. "You have to believe it."

Garcia is still kid enough to be playing a boyish bet with Adam Scott and Tim Clark to see who can go the longest without cutting his hair. So he's not ready to consider himself an old man on the PGA and European tours.

"I still don't have any gray hairs around me, so that's a good thing," he said.

Maybe not, but Garcia is considered seasoned enough to be dubbed by most as the current holder of the infamous title "best player to have never won a major." It seems hardly fair to bestow on one so young, but Garcia has the rsum to back it up.

Garcia turned pro following that first Masters appearance and he didn't wait long to make a major impression.

Four months later, he nearly chased down Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship at Medinah, etching that kidlike exuberance into the golfing consciousness with a runner-up finish.

He's added eight more top-10 finishes in majors since - including two at Augusta National where he eagerly hopes to follow in the footsteps of Spanish countrymen Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Garcia is the No. 6 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, and critics say that only his putting has prevented him from joining the so-called "Big Five" of multiple major winners entrenched ahead of him.

Look at last year. Garcia ranked No. 1 on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, seventh in scoring average, 10th in driving distance and 11th in ball striking en route to eight top-10 finishes. But he ranked 196th in putting average and 197th in putts per round.

Putting seems to be the only, and most significant, tool Garcia needs to win at Augusta National.

"If I would have putted the way I'm starting to putt now, it could have been a really good season for me, because I feel like my game was spot on," he said of his 2005 season.

"It's pretty simple - when you hole a couple putts it takes a lot of pressure off your game. You don't worry about missing a fairway here or there or missing a green here or there because you know you have a good chance of getting up and down or even just hitting a shot that you know you can make it.

"That's one thing that Tiger is good at. Even when his game is not spot on, you know that he can get in the hole and that he can get around. That's what you need around here and I feel like I'm starting to get around that."

Winning a major is the next hurdle he has to get around or over.

"I've worked on it, and I'm trying to get better," he said. "I feel like I've been doing a lot of good work and it's just a matter of giving yourself chances and hopefully break through one of those. That's really the only thing I can ask myself to do and I'm not going to put any extra pressure or anything. I just want to keep playing well and hopefully win one soon."

The 2006 major schedule also sets up as well as any for Garcia. His game typically peaks around June, when he's won three times and annually contends in Westchester County near this year's U.S. Open site at Winged Foot.

And his exploits the last time the PGA was staged at Medinah are legendary.

We've watched him grow up on the golf course for eight years and, with the right performances, this could be his year.

"It's been fun," Garcia said of the ride so far.

"I've enjoyed every bit of it and trying to improve every year, and, you know, I feel like I've been pretty successful. That's all you can try to do is keep getting better and better and see if things just keep coming along."

Ballesteros will stay away

Two-time Masters Tournament champion Seve Ballesteros will not be at Augusta National Golf Club for the third year in a row.

Ballesteros informed tournament officials in March that he was withdrawing.

"I have thought it through carefully and believe that to play in Augusta with the elite of world golf requires a different level of form to that which I can offer,'' Ballesteros said in a statement.

The 1980 and 1983 winner has not played in the Masters since 2003 and has not made the cut since 1996.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.