Tiger and Sergio straddle opposite sides of mental toughness
By Derek Evers
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- One is coming off a win that secured him a spot on the European Ryder Cup team, the other a weekend in which he shot two over and failed to contend at a major he was leading heading into Saturday. Yet you wouldn't be able to tell who was who based on their Wednesday press conferences as the FedEx Cup kicks off at this week's Barclays at Bethpage Black.
Despite what some might call a breakthrough victory at the Wyndham Championship last week for Sergio Garcia, his demeanor belied that of a recent champion. Sure, this was his first win in over four years on the PGA Tour, but as he's been quick to point out, he's coming off a 2011 season in which he won two European Tour events. Still, those victories came on the heels of a two-year winless streak on both Tours, leaving many -- including Garcia -- to question his mental capacity to close a tournament.
"I think you go through spots and through times in your career where obviously you have up and downs," Garcia said in response to a comment about his quip a couple years prior that he wasn't enjoying the game. "And when you go on those downs, obviously it's not much fun. But you kind of try to get through them. I guess that's why we love the game so much."
Love is not a word one would use to describe Sergio's affair with golf. Tumultuous would be a more accurate depiction, which is something Tiger Woods knows a thing or two about. Though their career paths may have taken dramatically different planes since they both arrived as promising young talents in the late '90s, Woods himself ended his career-long win drought in 2012, and can relate to the pressure Sergio puts on himself.
"I played with him this year at the British Open, and obviously he played differently at the British Open than he did last week," Woods said. "As players, we all know that once we get rolling, we're rolling. Things build, momentum builds in a positive way, and when you're struggling, things can go the other way, and sometimes it's hard to get out of it."
When Tiger Woods fell out of contention at the PGA Championship two weekends ago, he blamed a weak mental attitude. He was "too relaxed." So how did he spend his time preparing for the upcoming grind that could potentially see him play in five high-profile events in the next six weeks?
"I was with my kids this week. We were having a blast, just having a great time," he said with a smile, before admitting, "I just got back to practicing a few days ago."
Then he dropped a line that was rather commonplace in a Tiger Woods press conference, but something Sergio Garcia could take heed to.
"The PGA is the PGA. It's passed."
Always looking forward, never back. It's part of the reason we can't get enough of Tiger -- he rarely indulges our desires to rehash the past, and almost never if the topic is negative. Even if he's feeling the pressure of chasing Jack's 18 majors, he never strays from what has proven to be his biggest asset, his mental toughness.
Tiger's press conference came after a day of practice at the end of a pro-am round. Sergio didn't play in the pro-am, nor had he stepped foot on Bethpage Black. His parking spot remained empty until a few moments before he addressed the media, and he admitted as much when asked about course conditions. He's also still looking for a caddie. After splitting ways with Gary Matthews following a missed cut at the PGA, Garcia walked onto the Sedgefield Country Club without someone to man his bag. In stepped local club caddie David Faircloth, who was so green, he needed longtime PGA caddie Tony Navarro to hand him the flag on the 18th hole.
"That flag is kind of our trophy," Navarro told The New York Post. "I figured he didn't know, so I just did the right thing and gave it to him. He was a nice kid, and I could tell he was a bit emotional and excited."
Yet Garcia, who wouldn't reveal what Faircloth was compensated, will not be sticking with the North Carolinian, but instead has decided to play it week-to-week through the end of the season. Walking alongside him at the Barclays is good friend Wayne Richardson -- another guy with no experience caddieing for a tour professional.
"I don't feel like I need that at the moment," Garcia said, who has arrived at his own conclusion that the extra advice has come at the cost of his performance.
Of course, Tiger is not above blaming his course companion, having gone through two high-profile breakups of his own. In fact, Woods' current caddie Joe LaCava, who is rarely seen or heard from at tournaments -- at least when compared to a Steve Williams personality -- came after his longtime friend Bryon Bell caddied for him at last year's Bridgestone and PGA Championship. Maybe Sergio's taking a page out of Tiger's playbook, but his comments showed little confidence in his current situation.
"I'm probably just going to do my own thing until the end of the year, and at the end of the year I'll decide what's best for me."
What about the Ryder Cup?
"Same thing. Doesn't change anything."
Would you use a local caddie at Medinah?
"I'll see who I use."
It should be noted that Garcia didn't flinch when answering, nor did he smile. This was a decision he had made and was bent on sticking to it. Tiger, meanwhile, smiled often, even coming into his press conference early -- albeit maybe to take a little shine away from Rory McIlory who was wrapping up when he entered the room.
There is some symmetry to Tiger and Sergio playing at this week's Barclays. When asked about comparing his second major to McIlroy's, Tiger reminded everyone it was Garcia he edged out by a stroke for his second at the 1999 PGA, incidentally at Medinah Country Club where this year's Ryder Cup will be held. And it was that season-ending major which seemed to determine the course of each player's career throughout most of the 2000's.
Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia are two of golf's most popular and polarizing figures. Both command attention wherever and whenever they play, yet their public personas seem bent on opposite strategies. Tiger's on-course demeanor and off-course transgressions have led him to a "Dark Knight" existence on the PGA Tour -- wildly popular among fans who seem divided whether they're rooting for him to win or pulling for him to lose. Sergio, meanwhile, is a player fans have become more accustomed to seeing in commercials than in winner's circles. So on the few occasions he does get to hoist a trophy, we expect his personality to transcend the often cruel nature of game. Much the way we assume Tiger should always be gracious for all of the attention he receives.
The reality is, both of these men have earned their own reputation. And while neither of them owe the fans anything more than the best golf they can play, Woods is living proof that you can make lemonade out of life's lemons, albeit three years later. Yet even on the heels of victory, Sergio still seems to be puckering from the bitter taste of not living up to his own expectations.
(Photo by Getty Images)