Wednesday, March 23, 2011, 11:40 p.m.
By Leonard ShapiroCSNwashington.com
At the highest level of professional tournament golf, the game is mostly about the head, a players ability to think his way around a course and control his emotions in the cauldron of a Sunday duel down the stretch. For Sergio Garcia, over most of the past two years, its mainly been about a broken heart.
At the 2009 World Golf Championship event at Doral in 2009, Garcia and his steady girlfriend, Morgan-Leigh Norman, the daughter of Greg Norman, broke up after what had appeared to be a serious long-term relationship.
It was her doing, not mine, Garcia told The Times of London two months after they had split. It hurt. It was probably the first time I have been really in love. It took me a while to get over it.
Judging from his mostly pedestrian play ever since, a while has turned into a seeming eternity, at least until the 31-year-old Spaniard started showing some signs of life earlier in the year on the European Tour, and then again last week in Florida.
In his first appearance this season in a PGA Tour event, Garcia pushed himself to within a shot of the 36-hole lead at the Transitions tournament at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla., with rounds of 68 and 66. He then struggled over the weekend, with a Saturday 72 and a Sunday 71, but still managed a tie for 15th that left him mostly pleased with what appears to be the improving state of his game.
That hasnt been the case for a very long time.
At No. 2 in the world rankings behind Tiger Woods early in the 2009 season, Garcia has now tumbled down to No. 82 as he prepares to play this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando. He has seven PGA Tour titles, 15 top-10 finishes in major championships and a 14-6-1 record over five Ryder Cup appearances, but Garcia hasnt won on the PGA Tour since the 2008 Players Championship.
A highly gifted player as a teenager, 19-year-old Garcia burst onto the world scene at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he challenged Woods down the stretch at Medinah in Chicago and nearly pulled off the victory before settling for second, only a shot behind. It seemed only a matter of time before he would break through and win the first of what surely would be multiple majors. But it still hasnt happened for a temperamental player who also has had a well-deserved reputation as something of a whiner and a sore loser when things did not go his way.
And over the past two years, theyve gone in a terribly wrong way.
In 2009, Garcia had three top-10 finishes in 17 starts. Last year, he had one top 10 in 15 tour appearances, and after missing the cut at the PGA Championship, he decided to put away his clubs for the rest of the season. He never came close to making the European Ryder Cup team, and, despite his gaudy record in past Cup competitions, captain Colin Montgomerie could never justify making him a wild card captains choice.
Instead, he named him a vice captain, hoping his presence in the team room would provide an emotional lift for the rest of his players. It was a lovely gesture on Montgomeries part and a role Garcia took quite seriously, even if he couldnt participate as a competitor.
Everybody seems to make it a big deal, Garcia said of his decision to shut it down last fall. I think it was a small break, but it was good. I got to do a lot of things. I got to work on a lot of other things.
Asked at the Transitions event what had caused him to slide down the world rankings and fail to contend week after distressing week for almost two years, Garcia seemed purposely vague in trying to explain his recent woes.
I think it was a mix of things, he said. Obviously, a couple of things off the golf course didnt help, and then I just started not playing great, and knowing how I can play and what Im capable of doing, I dont like to settle for less.
Garcia has always been considered one of the games finest ball strikers, a man who hit scads of fairways and greens in regulation, bombed the ball a long way off the tee and had a nice touch with his short game, putting not exactly included. He has always struggled somewhat on greens, but its never been as bad as his past two seasons. In 2009, he ranked 116th in putting on the PGA Tour; last year, it got even worse, when he ranked 159th.
There were some signs of improvement in his first 36 bogey-free holes last week, but that was followed by a Saturday round that included four missed putts inside five feet. Garcia has experimented with all manner of putting strokes and grips, and that aspect of his game clearly remains a work in progress. He is now using a claw grip first popularized by Chris DiMarco and said hes been having enough decent results this year to stay with it for now.
Im not worried about winning, he said after his second round on Friday. I just want to keep building confidence into my head, and these rounds obviously help. If we go out there tomorrow and I shoot another good round, beautiful. If not, Ive just got to make sure that I keep building up.
At least Garcias heart seems healed these days, or so he says. His head? Stay tuned.
Contact Leonard Shapiro at Badgerlen@aol.com.