When I first encountered Sergio Garcia in 1998 at the U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill, I'd never seen a player so polished at such a young age, from the way he walked to the way he dressed to the way he played. A year later, at 19, he scissors-kicked his way into the hearts of golf fans at the PGA, racing after that incredible, eyes-closed shot from behind a tree at Medinah like a kid looking to see if he had made a hole-in-one through the tunnel in miniature golf. He didn't beat Tiger that day, but he seemed to arrive as a rival in major championships. Garcia's career instead has tracked more like Phil Mickelson's, with zero major victories in 38 tries as a pro (Mickelson won in his 43rd), yet filled with more intrigue and scrutiny than anyone but Tiger. A year ago, in his 10th PGA Tour season, Garcia won on what many consider golf's fifth-biggest stage, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Ranked No. 2 in the world at the start of '09, Garcia is sounding more confident than ever.
We didn't see you a whole lot between the Ryder Cup in September and the Match Play in March. Where were you for six months?
Just chillin' in Spain. Played a little in Europe and spent some time with family and friends.
You also have a place in Switzerland, don't you?
It's near Crans-sur-Sierre, where they play the European Masters. It's really nice, very cozy, very relaxed and people don't bother you. It's up in the mountains. We went there for Christmas and again after playing in Dubai.
Do you ski?
I do a little cross-country, but where I grew up in Spain it doesn't really snow, so I never skied, even though it seems like fun. I never liked the idea of getting hurt.
You're still dating Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan-Leigh, aren't you?
I am, and she's really great. She makes me feel at ease.
Have you spent much time with Greg?
I've been to their place in Florida a couple times and even played tennis with Chris [Evert, Norman's wife]. It's given me a chance to know Greg better. We have a great relationship.
He has been where you are, trying to win majors. Has he offered you any advice?
He pays attention to my career, and if I ask him, he tries to help as much as possible. At the same time, you still have to find your own way. What might work for one guy might not work for the next.
I've seen you on the tennis court, and you're really good. How much have you played with your Spanish buddy and world No. 1, Rafael Nadal?
He's got no chance against me! Actually, we have played a couple times, and it's a different level, believe me. He's so strong physically.
Can you return his serve?
When he tells me which side he's going to serve it I can get a handle on his speed after maybe five balls, and I'm able to return it. But when you don't know where it's going, it's a different game.
You love soccer, too.
I do, and I'm actually involved with my hometown team in Borriol, Spain. It's just a small village with about 3,500 people.
What's your role?
I'm the president. My brother and I and some friends take care of the team, try to get some sponsorships. It's a lot of fun and a good way to get my head out of golf when I'm not playing. Sometimes I even practice with them.
You performed very well as a Bond-like character in those Michelob commercials. Ever thought about acting more?
The directors said I did fairly well on the acting side, and it's interesting because you do get into it when you're asked to do things you don't normally do. But I haven't thought much about acting again. My game hasn't gone that far south!
How are you different at 29 than you were at 19?
I'm more mature and have more experience. You try to do what you think is right, but sometimes it doesn't come out the way you hope. You learn from that and maybe become a better person.
Is that what happened at Carnoustie, where you were criticized for some of the things you said at your news conference after you lost the 2007 British Open in a playoff?
I was disappointed. Even though I played well, it seemed like things didn't go my way. That's what I was trying to express.
You had another great chance last August at the PGA at Oakland Hills. You had a one-stroke lead until the 16th hole Sunday. What happened?
The wind was at us and from the left. I hit 6-iron, aiming about six yards left of the hole, and I was trying to fade it a bit. If I hit it straight, I'm fine; if it cuts, it's perfect. I came out of it a little bit. It's one of those things that can happen.
Many say that after the majors, the Players Championship is the most important event of the year. After winning it last year, do you agree?
I do, because of the depth of the field, the golf course and the history. To win it at a course I've always loved was awesome.
You took some criticism early that week for your putting. Did you get extra satisfaction from silencing the critics?
No, not at all. I can't be thinking that way. You try to win to satisfy yourself, not to get back at anyone.
You're better than ever now because . . . ?
Because my short game is better and because I'm a lot calmer. I control myself better.
Since the Players, you've often worn black on Sundays. Why?
It makes me feel good. I feel calmer. It gives me energy from the heat.
Why did the Americans win back the Ryder Cup in Kentucky?
They played better than us.
This summer you'll go back to Bethpage Black for the U.S. Open. Those New York fans gave you a hard time in 2002. What do you think it'll be like this time?
We'll see when I get there. It's not up to me, because you can't control what's said. But I'm looking forward to it. It's a great golf course.
That's where Tiger won the second of his three U.S. Opens. What do you admire most about him?
He's an unbelievable competitor, the kind of guy who somehow is capable of doing something extraordinary at just the right time. Not many people can do that.
How would you describe your relationship with Tiger?
We'll say hello, maybe ask about family, but we're not necessarily close.
What do you like most about coming to America?
Playing here is great. This is the best tour in the world, although the European tour is catching up.
How will the economic downturn change the way you live?
It might change it a little bit. Look, we're hoping it gets better not just for us, but for everyone. It's tough for a lot of people. These situations are hard. But I think the world will come out stronger and be a better place.
You're doing your part with your charities.
I feel very fortunate. Things have worked out very well for me. We have two foundations—one in Spain and one in Switzerland—that do a lot for kids. I've been blessed, so I feel it's important to give back to those in need.
Rich Lerner is a commentator and essayist for the Golf Channel, where he has worked since 1997.