Had you polled an American clubhouse in 2005 about the worst things in the game of golf, the results could be fairly predictable. Slow play. The USGA. Putting on aerated greens. Sergio Garcia.
Ask another younger, more rebellious subset about the best things in the game at the time? Relaxed dress codes. Those new Tiger Woods shoes. Not needing a tee time at the club. Oh, and very possibly -- Sergio Garcia.
Among a certain populace, disliking Sergio Garcia in the United States was the Thing To Do in the mid-aughts, some reasons good, others less so. American golf fandom has always teetered -- and often crossed -- the thin line between national pride and out-and-out xenophobia. But some of Garcia's own actions played perfectly into the hands of that need for a foreign nemesis for Tiger Woods' American reign. Spitting in cups and very dumb, inexcusable fried chicken jokes and otherwise freely speaking your mind that could probably use a bit of a filter is a way to make your way quickly out of the soft spot in what American hearts remained open. Continually tripping over your own two feet on golf's biggest stages only threw accelerant on some of the foot-in-mouth gaffes. The villain always loses at the end of a good movie, anyway.
For another subset of golf's fanbase, Sergio's been something of a hard-luck cult hero. Since the moment he burst onto the scene at Medinah in '99, his on-course antics and breathtaking shotmaking gave El Nino more than his fair share of fans -- especially those that might skew a bit on the rebellious side. The pain the Spaniard has experienced at a number of major championships is relatable to most that play the game, seeing that round, that moment slip away with a stumble down the backstretch of a golf course. His play is all-at-once majestic and horrifying. Sergio Garcia is not anything close to you on the links, but maybe your pipe-dream representation of such.
This is who Sergio Garcia is. Enigma. Polarizing. Choker. Idiot savant. Whatever phrasing you'd like to use. Or maybe -- was.
This is a column, a prognostication that's been made before and almost assuredly will be rendered foolish on about the 69th or 70th hole of the tournament. But heading into the 145th Open Championship, something feels different about Sergio -- and his chances to finally get the major championship burden off his back at Royal Troon.
Maybe it's the peace he's seemingly achieved with never winning a major championship. He famously scoffed about not having the game or ability to win the big one at the 2012 Masters -- a statement everyone in the room at the time knew was false. The knock on Garcia has never been his physical tools. That comment at the time was a validation of one subset's opinion of Sergio, a petulant, whiny child who doesn't have the mental fortitude to win on the biggest stage. But over the next three years, Garcia's view on major championships evolved from something of self-loathing to a man at peace with his legacy -- despite being in only his mid-30s.
"It is important but it's not the ultimate thing," Garcia told USA Today in early 2015. "I'm not saying that winning a major is not important but it's not the most important thing in the world. … At the end of the day, the most important thing for me when I quit playing golf is to leave the game better than when I started. Hopefully I can put my little fingerprint on it and help it a little bit."
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
And there's no doubt, despite the decade-plus of top-level golf ahead of him, Garcia's done that. Twenty career wins on the PGA & European Tours. Twenty career major top-10 finishes. One of the best Ryder Cup-ers ever. He'll have another opportunity to add to his legacy in Rio, where he's now one of the few superstars to commit to golf's calamitous return to the games. That shouldn't shock you. Sergio Garcia would play a golf tournament on the dang moon if it gave him the opportunity to drape himself in la Rojigualda. He's one of the game's greatest players of the last 20 years, and that's not up for debate.
But this is the sporting culture that hollers about RINGZZZZZZ and BANNERS and TROPHIES to the point we force Kevin Durant to flee Oklahoma to secure his legacy. Sports aren't zero-sum, and major championships are inherently a bad metric on which to judge who's great and who's just meh in golf. Hell, the last time the Open came to Royal Troon, Todd F***** Hamilton came away with the Claret Jug. Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell, Ben Curtis, Trevor Immelman, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel all own major championship victories since 2002. Until 2014, Angel Cabrera had two wins in the United States -- both came in majors. Garcia is twice as skilled as any player on this list, and his impact on the game has been far greater. Using a major championship victory as the bright-line between Good and Not Good is fantastically dumb and flawed.
Still, Garcia undoubtedly wants a major, and it's almost certain that The Open is the one he'd like to have most. It's the major that's slipped out of his grasp at the last moments so many times, it's the major closest to a home game for one of Europe's biggest Ryder Cup stars, and it's the major where his idol Seve Ballesteros first broke through nearly 40 years ago.
And there's no better time than now for Sergio to follow Seve's footsteps. He's finished T-2 and T-6 in the last two Opens. He's got four top-five finishes in his last five starts, including a win at the Byron Nelson and a strong run at Oakmont. There's exactly one player in the world -- Dustin Johnson -- who's assuredly in better form right now than Garcia. Even world No. 1 Jason Day is basically a push with Sergio in terms of results over the last five events. The Spaniard missed the cut here at Royal Troon in 2004, but it still feels like this could be Sergio's moment -- the completion of his inverse heel-turn, from immature hard-luck 20-something to a seasoned, measured, likeable 30-something, finally-here superstar.
Or we'll just be able to republish this same column next year.