You can take a player out of the game, but you’ll never take the game out of a player.
Unless it happens to be Sergio Garcia, that is.
Love him or loathe him, he wears his emotions on his sleeve and he’ll tell you how he really feels. Of which, mind you, makes his candid personal assessment of his career following his T12 finish last Sunday at the Masters seem all the more credible. And it would also make Garcia an interesting case study for any number of renowned sports psychologists, a challenging study if not an impossible one, to better figure out exactly how a world-class player with an abundance of talent could seem so frustrated and miserable with his performance in the game’s biggest events over the years. But to be fair, and taking nothing away from any player who has endured the pressures associated with 72 holes of major championship golf well enough to remove the top item from their career bucket lists, I can understand the frustration. We need to look no further than Shaun Micheel, whose only victory in his 20-yr career came back in the 2003 PGA Championship, to find some small orb of sympathy for the Spaniard.
But as those of us familiar with the game of golf at just about every level can attest to – it’s not just about the talent at one’s disposal, but equally as much about having the right attitude. Having the right attitude is always important, but it becomes even more important when things don’t go quite as expected. Unfortunately for Garcia – he’s had numerous opportunities to learn that over his 13-year career, but the concept continues to elude him. Expectations lead to hopes, and when those hopes don’t materialize – they often lead to frustration. After a number of years of frustration, it turns into bitterness. That bitterness has long been in the process of stealing the spirit of El Niño.
Most of us recall the timeout that he gave himself two seasons ago, the self-induced hiatus that essentially assured him that he wouldn’t be playing in the one event that he’s excelled the highest at throughout his career – the Ryder Cup. Garcia admitted that he was on the verge of burnout for the first time in his career, needing a few months away from the game. “I need the break,” he said. “I need to miss the game a little bit.” He did make the trip to Celtic Manor with the European team that year, albeit the role as a captain’s assistant and cheerleader, not a teammate. He was ranked 46th in the world at the time, on the verge of falling out of the top-50. No doubt, the 2-month break was needed.
Proof of that came near the end of last season, when Garcia did something that he’d never done prior in his career: winning back-to-back weeks on the European Tour, winning the Castello Masters and then winning the Andalucia Masters the following week. Things seemed to be turning the corner, and he quickly moved up the world rankings once again to 21st.
And then came last Saturday at Augusta, with those major championship demons looking over his shoulder.
Garcia felt his way around Augusta National on Thursday, carding 5 birdies in his opening round. Unfortunately he would likewise card 3 bogeys and a double, putting him at level-par after Day 1. Friday would be a different story, however. On a day that proved to be incredibly difficult with the wind and the soft conditions making the course play significantly longer, Sergio carded only 2 bogeys on the day, and kicked in 6 birdies for a solid round of 4-under 68. Just like that he was only a few shots off the lead and in great position heading into the weekend, plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Except he wasn’t. After his solid round on Friday, Garcia set the stage for what lied ahead on Saturday. “I don’t know if I’m ready to win. I’ll see. We’ll see. Depends how I play tomorrow, and then it depends how I go out there on Sunday and how I play,” he said. “I wish I could tell you I’m ready to win, but I really don’t know. So I’m just going to give it my best try, and you know, hopefully that will be good.”
He wasn’t exactly oozing confidence.
Then came the horrible start Saturday morning, as he would card bogeys on three of his first four holes. Garcia made the turn at 4-over 40, and could only manage 1 stroke better than par coming in, signing for a 3-over 75 and essentially shooting himself out of the tournament. Afterward, his frustrations were captured by some Spanish reporters, as Sergio told them, “That’s the reality. I’m not good enough and today I know it. I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological… after 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the majors. That’s it.”
He would go on to shoot 1-under 71 on Sunday to finish T12, but Garcia found nothing worth taking away from what he essentially deemed yet another miserable opportunity squandered in a major, and true to form – he wouldn’t downplay his comments from a day earlier. “Everything I say, I say it because I feel it. If I didn’t mean it, I couldn’t stand here and lie like a lot of the guys do. If I felt like I could win, I would do it,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately at the moment, unless I get really lucky in one of the weeks, I can’t really play much better than I played this week. And I’m going to finish 13th or 15th. What does that show you?”
It shows us that the 2-month hiatus, in reality, did very little. It reinforces the point that an abundance of talent can’t overcome an attitude that is often so misaligned with that level of talent that we consider the talent itself wasted.
It’s why guys like Paul Goydos can shoot 59 and still contend in a tournament with players half his age. It’s why guys like Tommy 2-Gloves Gainey can take such an inferior homemade swing and earn a handsome living playing golf at that level. It’s why players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, and Jim Furyk have enjoyed the careers that they’ve enjoyed, that genuine belief that they’re better than one bad round or a few bad weeks. Each of those guys have overcome strife in their lives and careers at some point to prove that not only can they still win, they can still win the big ones. It’s not about lying to one’s self, but believing in one’s self.
But I believe you, Sergio. I don’t think you’ll ever win a major. And the reason I believe that is because you do.