May 12, 2008

Motivated By The Media

Sergio Garcia uses his critics to fuel his charge to victory at TPC Sawgrass

Garcia didn't yield to critics who knocked his putting and earned his biggest win.

Garcia didn't yield to critics who knocked his putting and earned his biggest win.

The lasting image of the 35th Players championship was Sergio Garcia standing on the slipperiest stage in golf planting a wet one on the face of his old Scotty Cameron putter. Asked afterward if the pose was designed to be symbolic, or just a reaction to the microscopic examination of his putting game, the defiant and still young Spaniard said quite coldly, "Yeah, I guess it was a reaction. Everybody can take it the way they want."

In a way, Garcia's pointed response was similar to Tiger Woods grabbing onto criticism he receives and making it the fire that burns his competitive engine. Garcia even used a former inhabitant of Tiger's media doghouse, NBC's Jimmy Roberts, to stoke his will to win this almost-major. With Woods, it was Roberts once using the word "slump" in an interview. With Garcia, it was Roberts' line of questioning after Sergio came off the course after Saturday's 73, having taken 34 putts, including a painful three-jack on the par-3 17th following a beautifully controlled full-throttle sand wedge that stopped 10½ feet from the hole. Roberts tried to get Garcia to admit his putting was off, but Sergio wouldn't bite.

"You heard yesterday, didn't you?" Garcia said after winning Sunday, a not-so-subtle reference to the Roberts interview that evoked a series of curt answers. Asked if the media criticism motivated him, he couldn't respond quickly enough. "Definitely," he said. "Gives me something to prove."

Whether those motivational forces can spark Garcia to a real major are unknown. While summoning the strength to trust his new Stan Utley ­putting arc with clutch, par-saving putts on the last two holes of regulation and making a day's-best 127 feet of putts, Garcia left behind some shaky reminders he is not 100 percent committed to a firm rap into the back of the cup, including a missed three-foot birdie putt on the 70th hole that would have given him the lead at six under.

But Paul Goydos sees that day coming—and soon. "He's a great athlete and he's just going through a rough patch," said the gracious second-place finisher as Garcia took his place at the podium Sunday night, holding the Players crystal. "He did real well getting through his re-gripping, and he'll get through this just like he got through that. I'm not worried about Sergio too much. He'll win a lot of major championships."

The asterisk to Garcia's putting performance came on the 73rd hole, back at the island green, after Goydos rinsed his pitching wedge and Sergio hit the shot of the tournament, a pitching wedge he said "hung in the air forever," before being pushed down the crest by wind and gravity until it wobbled to a stop, less than four feet from the hole.

He was that close to the cup and temporary redemption; but Garcia defensively nudged his ball toward the hole on the toe of the putter, safely within inches. Not exactly the most emphatic exclamation point, as Sergio admitted. "Yeah, it was the longest [four] feet I've ever seen," he said.

In Garcia's defense, these were tough greens in which to put a new stroke to the ultimate test and he certainly didn't want a power-lipout with the tournament practically won. "As quick as they were, with the wind and everything," he agreed. "It was almost difficult to put the putter behind the ball and keep it still, because there was so little resistance in the grass."

What Garcia is tapping into, through Utley, is the natural talent that made him instantly famous at the 1999 PGA Championship. "It's like going back in time," Garcia said of Utley's stroke, and of the player's return to the Cameron that made so many putts when Garcia was in his early 20s. "When I play like a kid, I usually do well," Garcia said. "I definitely don't consider myself a kid anymore. I feel like an old man, an old 28-year-old."

This year started with him in various forms of putter-grip combinations and shaft lengths—that alone will age you—but Sergio struggled until caddies Billy Foster and Glen Murray finally convinced him to see Utley on the West Coast. Murray said the discussion about seeing the short-game guru goes back five years but as he said, "It had to come from Sergio," and Utley finally got the call in February.

They worked early in the week at Sawgrass, but mostly on chipping—specifically a sand-wedge shot that would roll rather than check up on the Stadium Course's firm greens. From Scottsdale Friday night, Utley said it was just a matter of Garcia trusting it, that he didn't see any flinches in his student's stroke. They did not communicate after Saturday's round, but that is not unusual. What Utley saw watching the last four holes was clearly not what Johnny Miller described from the booth. "He's stroking it so much better than he did four months ago," Utley said. "It looks bad because he hits so many more greens than anybody else. It's all relative."

It must be. Because now with the U.S. Open coming up in a month, Garcia moves to the head of a group of twentysomethings who drive the ball incredibly straight and long—which is what it will take to beat Woods at Torrey Pines. Roger Maltbie described Garcia's second-round driving—he hit all 14 fairways—as the best he has ever seen. Garcia acknowledges that Woods possesses the better short game, and after poking a stick in Tiger's cage during the Battle at Bighorn-Bethpage days of their relationship, he took a diplomatic approaching to looking ahead to the next major. "It's going to be really difficult to beat Tiger there because he obviously loves that golf course, kind of like the same way I feel here," he said. "But I want to at least give it a chance and see if I can challenge him a little bit. Whatever happens, happens."