Back on course, Sergio's present but not so much a presence

by | Senior Writer

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- They spotted each other from adjoining tee boxes at Innisbrook Resort and let out a shout.

Justin Rose ambled over to Sergio Garcia and offered a hearty handshake, then heard the admittedly limited rundown on what the talented Spaniard has been up to lately. The two, who own homes at the same private Orlando club, kibitzed about the Tavistock Cup, which Garcia has skipped the past two years.

A long period of uninspired play has dropped Sergio Garcia to No. 85 in the world. (Getty Images)  
A long period of uninspired play has dropped Sergio Garcia to No. 85 in the world. (Getty Images)  
Rose hadn't seen Garcia in several weeks. For those of us in the States, it has been an even longer, more awkward period -- seven months. So the que pasa question still burns.

The last time Garcia played in a PGA Tour event, he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, quickly packed up his bags and took a two-month sabbatical, citing emotional burnout, disinterest and a lack of passion for the game.

Wednesday in the pro-am at the Transitions Championship outside Tampa, Garcia looked the same as he ever was, chatting and encouraging his amateur partners, engaging his peers in lively conversation. Still, when discussing his general emotional state, something still seems to be missing.

"It's good, it's definitely better," he said of his motivation to play. "I definitely feel like I want to be out here."

That's a long way from scissor-kicks and his other famous histrionics.

Never thought I'd be writing this, but I miss the old Sergio: The brash, swashbuckling, thin-skinned, persecuted, animated, occasionally annoying, often brilliant guy who won 19 international tournaments before he turned 30, including seven on the PGA Tour. The most victories amassed by any current player under 30 is four, by the way.

Watching Garcia play certainly elicited a variety of reactions. Even when he was infuriating, he commanded attention, and in his own flamboyant fashion, he was great for the game. Nothing was sacred in his younger years, especially if the topic was Tiger Woods.

Passion exuded from Garcia like an aura, mostly for good, sometimes for bad. These days, after taking the two-month break to refuel his inner fire, the old spark nonetheless appears to be producing little more than small wisps of smoke. He says all the right things, but conviction seems to be missing.

After being within striking range of Woods' No. 1 spot 27 months ago, he has drifted to No. 85 in the world. One reason he didn't come to the States earlier is that he wasn't eligible for the World Golf Championship events, the match play or at Doral. So he didn't play at all.

He has played seven times in as many months. He has made three starts this year and hasn't played anywhere since Feb. 13. When jokingly asked where he's been hiding, he laughed.

"I've been playing," he said. "You obviously haven't been watching."

We have, actually. He finished T20 in his last start four weeks ago, in Dubai, and otherwise had two other top-30 finishes. As he noted in Europe a few weeks ago, Garcia says he's ready to play, but there seems to be an element of lethargy in his vocal delivery. Maybe he's more mature, chastened, something.

Most of us wouldn't mind it if he hot-dogged around like he used to, which would represent the biggest indication that the passion was back. In his most indelible moments, he was a hyperactive squirrel, running around like some sort of overanimated, overcaffeinated cartoon caricature. Just 2½ years ago, he was arguably the best player in the game for several months, and he entered the 2009 season ranked No. 2 in the world behind Tiger Woods.

Interestingly, the defending champion this week, Jim Furyk, explained Wednesday that he entered the Transitions last year in a bit of a funk himself -- not to mention a two-year victory drought -- and decided he was beating himself up too much.

"I got tired of being miserable on the golf course," Furyk said.

That's why Garcia bailed in the first place after the PGA last year. Still in the doldrums after a romantic breakup that has been well-chronicled, he tagged along as an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup last fall and showed signs of emerging from his funk. He carried Lee Westwood's bag in practice, cut up with the caddies and other players, and it seemed as though the goosebumps were back.

But the lethargy levels aren't as noticeable so much in his words, but in body language. Garcia is mostly saying all the right things, but the level of conviction just doesn't seem to be there. He used to act like the little brother you wanted to give a beatdown. Now he seems like a world-weary old uncle.

His European Tour peers are certainly hoping he's coming out of his shell.

"I've always been a fan of him," said 17-year-old Italian star Matteo Manassero, who won last year in Europe. "He's a great guy, he's a fantastic golf player, and he's had a bad moment, but definitely you can see everybody can see he's coming out of this moment.

"He's been playing well and he's been making some good scores. I think that he's definitely coming out of this and I definitely want him to get back to winning golf tournaments and to get back as he was."

It's crazy how fleeting that success can be. Just 26 months ago, had Garcia had a strong spring while Woods was recovering from knee surgery, he could have been world No. 1. Now he's barely among the top 25 Europeans.

Most of the existential angst was between the ears, not relating to any physical issue.

"Physical? Am I getting fat or something?" Garcia said playfully. "I think obviously it was mental before, and as you gain a bit of confidence, it kind of helps. There's nothing better than confidence for your mental game. When you are feeling confident, you don't think about things, you just kind of do them.

"I think as we keep getting better and better, that will happen."

Maybe the old mojo returns, though you may never again see the guy once called El Nino.

"That doesn't mean I am going to be jumping around," he laughed. "I'm 31. I save my jumps for other things."

Like, hopefully, a springboard back toward the top.


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