PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA l Sergio Garcia missed a birdie putt on the infamous 17th hole – and smiled.
No kidding. He did. On the Stadium Course, where seldom does much happen to tickle a golfer’s fancy.
Garcia is mired in the most unsightly spell of his career. He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in more than two years now, since The Players in 2008. Before that, it was three years, back to the 2005 Booz Allen Classic when he last accepted a trophy. In Europe, same story. A victory in 2008 at the Castello Masters and, before that, in 2005 at the Omega Masters.
That’s not the stuff of Wunderkinds.
In his previous start before The Players, Garcia finished T70 in New Orleans. His best finish in a medal-play event on the PGA Tour this year upon his arrival at the Stadium Course was T37 at the WGC-CA Championship.
The game hasn’t been much fun for Garcia lately. The smiles have been few and far between. Sure, some of it has to do with a balky putter. Many a golfer has been blindsided on the greens. Garcia isn’t likely ever to be a great putter. Those are born, not made. But he’s good enough to have won 18 times worldwide and doubtless will win more.
Along with an AWOL putter, Garcia has had to deal with the absence of a clear and positive outlook about his game. The gloom has weighed on his shoulders like an anvil, the doubt etched on his face. But at The Players there was something different about Garcia. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there. Other times we miss the obvious. So, Sergio, what’s going on? Or is the sun from those 90-plus degree days getting in my eyes?
Garcia said I’m not wearing blinders, for once. That really was a smile on his face.
“I’m surrounded by nice people and I’ve had good conversations,” said Garcia, over some deliberations that took place in the days leading up to The Players. “It put things in perspective. I’m out there trying my hardest. Sometimes you might play good and sometimes it’s not there.”
There it is. An epiphany.
“We’re not bullet-proof,” said Garcia, who certainly must have once believed he was. “We know how difficult it is out here. You learn from all those things (the good and the bad). And you realize you can be a better person at the end of the day. I chose this life. I don’t regret it. I enjoy it.”
The Kid we met for the first time at the 1998 PGA Championship at Medinah, where he hopped, skipped and jumped his way across the fairways of golf and life, is 30. The Kid who attacked golf courses with no fear, who never found a lie he couldn’t handle, even if it was up against a tree, has been playing on Tour since 1999 and he has won $26 million in the United States.
But he still hasn’t won a major – that victory at The Players in 2008 coming the closest – and the struggles of the past few years have gotten the best of him. He’s working on an attitude adjustment, at least an attempt at it. Here’s the problem: It’s hard to be upbeat when you’ve just crafted a neat little 75.
“When you shoot 75, you’re not smiling on every hole,” Garcia said. “It’s not that simple.”
Which comes first? A 66 or a smile? Garcia, sounding more like a philosopher than a golfer, is trying to kick-start it with a few smiles. Good idea. If you listen carefully enough, two words you will hear more frequently than “double-bogey” on the PGA Tour are “positive” and “confidence.”
The mantra is: You must believe. But if you don’t, don’t let anybody know it. Don’t talk about it and don’t let your body language betray you. Phil Mickelson said just thinking about his Masters victory did something to his psyche at The Players.
“Even though I wasn’t looking good, it just gives me a little bit of momentum and positive thoughts,” Mickelson said.
Lee Westwood was asked about his mindset on the greens. “It’s funny how they go in when you expect to hole them,” the Englishman said. “And when you stand over it without confidence, how they miss. It’s just something if you’ve got any experience, you just allow to build up.”
Mickelson was positive and Westwood was confident. World-class players delivering messages about what’s at the core of the game at its highest levels. There is so much mind over matter in the equation.
Westwood and Garcia have been a formidable Ryder Cup pairing for Europe before hitting speed bumps at Valhalla.
Westwood knows Garcia’s game in English and Spanish. The in-form Westwood isn’t concerned about Garcia’s game.
“I don’t analyze other people’s games,” Westwood said. “There are far too many people with opinions. That’s the unfortunate thing about opinions … everybody’s got one. That’s why I don’t volunteer mine too much.
“Form is temporary, but class is permanent and (Sergio’s) got a lot of class. He’s just short of a bit of confidence at the moment. But two years ago you saw him win (The Players) and I’m sure that Sergio Garcia is not far away given a few good rounds under his belt.”
And maybe a few more smiles.