GOLF EQUIPMENT

Garcia still wants
to be tops on both tours

By Shane Sharp,
Contributing Writer

ATLANTA (Jan. 14, 2003) -- Sergio Garcia may frustrate you with his milking and waggling of his golf club, or he may inspire you with his toothy grin and youthful exuberance.

Like him or loath him, he is just what the personality-challenged PGA Tour needs. Last November, while the Tour's top players geared up for the Tournament Championship at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club, the giddy Spaniard was off promoting the launch of Microsoft's Links 2003. Garcia's stake in the golf simulation video game is two fold: he spends countless hours playing it on transatlantic flights, and he appears on both the cover and the game itself.

"It was actually quite fun," Garcia said about being hooked up to a swing simulator to develop the realistic mannerisms of his video persona. "It was my second time doing it, and I really enjoyed it. It is fun to try and recreate all the moves you make on the golf course. I am surprised how well it comes out."

When it comes to Garcia, many of those moves involve skipping down fairways, passionate fist pumps, and other genuflections and gyrations that have turned the prim and proper game of golf on its face. If Tiger Woods is the bridge between a once elitist game and the masses, then Garcia is the stepping-stone to a new image for a sport that could use a serious injection of chutzpa.

His defining moment may have occurred on the final day of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. Trailing Woods by two shots with three holes to play, Garcia (eyes closed and head turned at impact) smashed a 200-yard 6-iron shot from behind a tree and out from between two sewer pipe sized roots. As the shot cut toward the green, he bounded up the fairway like kangaroo to catch a glimpse of the ball coming to rest safely on the putting surface.

Woods went on to win the tournament in what has become a microcosm of the two players' professional existences - Woods in the lead and Garcia looking up at the leader board with a longing in his eye. There's still plenty of time, however, for Garcia to play catch-up. At just 22 years of age, he is a full four years younger than Woods and has been playing some of his best golf in the past 12 months.

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Garcia's pedigree and God-given right to challenge Woods as the best player in the world have never been in question. He was 2-years-old when he took his first golf swings with a feather duster in the pro shop at Club de Campo del Mediterraneo where his father worked. At age 12 he won the club championship, and at 15 he was the youngest player to ever win the European Amateur while compiling a 32-1 match play record and a plus-5.4 handicap.

In 2002, Garcia amassed earnings in excess of $2.4 million, including a season-opening victory in the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii. He capped the year by leading the European team to a 15.5 to 12.5 victory over the U.S. in the Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England. Garcia says he savored the historic victory for a few days, but has since set his sights on the 2003 season.

"Winning the Ryder Cup and winning the majors is what players think about," he says. "The Ryder Cup is over and now we are back here and we are individual again."

Which, if you read between the lines, means it is back to Woods vs. Garcia for all the marbles. Garcia once said that his career is to be the best player on both the PGA and European Tours. He splits his time between the two tours, with a schedule that has been weighted heavily toward the U.S. since he turned pro three years ago. To complete both sides of this equation, Garcia will have to dethrone Woods as the best player in the world - a feat that is becoming less and less likely, even with Woods likely to miss the first two months of the 2003 season while rehabbing a knee injury.

Last season, Garcia turned in impressive performances in three of the four majors, finishing eighth in the Masters, fourth in the U.S. Open, eighth in the British Open and tied for 10th in the PGA Championship. All well and fine until you consider that Woods won twice on golf's biggest stages, (the 2002 Masters and U.S. Open) adding to his gaudy collection of eight Major titles. Undaunted, Garcia says he is sticking to his plan despite the fact that he'll play in fewer events in the U.S. in 2003.

"That is still my goal," he says. "I haven't made my schedule yet, but I probably won't make as many trips over here."

It's too bad, because many of us will miss the playfulness and passion he brings to the game and a rivalry that is only beginning to take shape.

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