Sergio Garcia burst onto the scene more than 14 years ago with a flamboyant style and explosive golf game that promised great things to come.
Since then, the Spaniard’s career has been a dizzying series of missteps, missed opportunities and unfortunate public comments that have completely changed the perception of him and, ultimately, the chance for any positive lasting legacy.
The Sergio slide didn't happen overnight, and it isn't linked to a single event alone. Rather, it took time for Garcia to become the PGA Tour’s primary villain and certainly one of the most underachieving golfers of his generation.
The Sergio we first met in 1999 was destined to follow in the footsteps of his heroes Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal as a player golf fans, even Americans, would cheer and appreciate.
Sergio was going to wow and inspire with his vibrant style, shot-making skills and boyish charm while winning major championships along the way.
That is not the Sergio we have today—in fact, it’s not even close.
Blunders off and on the course, inconsistent and sometimes just awful play, and a personality that has been more complain and pout than shock and awe has become the reality of Sergio Garcia despite the fact that it wasn't supposed to be that way.
Without question, Garcia’s reputation and career slide both hit sad lows in May with his racially insensitive remarks regarding Tiger Woods, who has been the central figure in Sergio’s struggles both on and off the course for years.
But well before his “fried chicken” blunder, Sergio has been his own worst enemy, turning great potential into significant disappointment for a decade-plus.
1999 PGA Championship—Sergio’s Arrival
Garcia literally leaped onto the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship as a precocious 19-year-old with a world of talent that was good enough to take a young Tiger to the brink at Medinah Golf Club.
Woods would hold off Garcia by a single stroke to win his second career major title, but there was no doubt golf had a budding rivalry and that Sergio would be winning his share of majors in the years to come.
Garcia even had his “moment in time” that has followed him since. Playing a shot from the base of tree off the 16th fairway, Sergio risked injury to hit an incredible shot that reached the green as he chased up the fairway behind it.
That shot should have been just the launching pad for many more Garcia moments. Instead, it still serves as one of his two or three pinnacle achievements.
2002 U.S. Open—It All Begins to Go so Wrong
Less than three years later, another major championship served as the launching point of Sergio’s career reversal.
At the 2002 U.S. Open, Garcia outraged many, including Tiger himself, by suggesting the USGA would have suspended play during the soggy second round of the Open at Bethpage Black had Woods been on the course.
Those comments revealed the finger-pointing, complaining side of Sergio’s personality and it didn't sit well with the New York galleries and media assembled for the major championship that Woods would eventually win.
Yet those comments were just the beginning of what might have been Sergio’s worst week as a professional, at least before “ChickenGate” erupted last month.
During the same major on Long Island, Sergio developed an issue with multiple waggles that led to a prolonged setup over the ball and eventually to some significant taunting from the sharp New York galleries. Garcia would still manage to contend at Bethpage, but he would ultimately fall short while playing in the final group with Tiger on Sunday.
The importance of the 2002 U.S. Open in the deconstruction of Sergio’s image and popularity can’t be overstated. The Spaniard appeared through his words to be a spoiled complainer and, through his actions, to be a golfer in over his head during such a challenging major championship.
The 2007 World Golf Championship at Doral—Sergio Spits and Hits the Pits
After some questionable words coming out of Sergio’s mouth, the Spaniard made things even worse by spitting into a golf hole during competition at the 2007 CA Championship at Doral in South Florida.
Garcia spat in the cup after missing a short par putt on the 13th during the third round at Doral and with players still yet to play the hole.
When asked about it on national television, Garcia acknowledged the act but dismissed its significance. It was another poor public performance for Sergio in which he came across as spoiled and out of touch with public perception.
The On-Course Failures
Garcia has had opportunities to win majors and topple his reputation as an underachiever. The best two of those after the 2002 U.S. Open came in the 2006 and 2007 Open Championships.
In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Sergio played in the final group with Tiger on Sunday but faded early and was never a factor down that stretch as Woods battled Chris DiMarco before winning yet another major with Garcia looking on. Tiger fired a five-under 67 that day. Garcia countered with a one-over 73.
In 2007 at Carnoustie, Garcia had another chance to win the Open Championship but gave up a three-shot lead in the final round and lost in a four-hole playoff to Padraig Harrington.
Those blown opportunities coupled with the 2002 nightmare at Bethpage denied Garcia the chance to legitimize his career with a major and minimize the burden of all his other issues. Instead, falling short in those majors has only furthered the image of Garcia as a player who can’t win the big one.
The 2013 Players Championship—Another Turn with Tiger
The timing of Garcia’s public back and forth with Tiger Woods at TPC Sawgrass couldn't have been worse. The Spaniard was playing some of his best golf since his first Players Championship in 2008 and was right in contention for a second.
Yet following their third round together, Garcia just couldn't help but call out Woods for distracting him on the par-5 second hole. A day later, rather than congratulating Tiger on winning his second Players title, Garcia instead chose to take some more shots at Woods, who inevitably shot back.
Again, even amid his own failures on the course, Sergio was pointing fault at someone else—the same, tired story.
The Comment and the Apology
With the “fried chicken” comment a week later, Sergio masterfully completed his long, winding road from exciting young player to confounding villain. With all the other labels on him—underachiever, whiner, pouter, spoiled—Sergio now had to deal with another one: racist.
To be fair, few really believe Garcia is a racist; he simply uttered a racist remark in an effort to be funny. Sergio has also said and done all the right things since those unfortunate comments, but the damage yet again has already been done.
The reality of how Garcia is now perceived by the majority of golf fans is light years from how he was received 15 years ago. He’s largely been done in by his own actions and on-course failures. There’s likely little this side of winning a couple of majors in the twilight of his career Garcia can do to change that.
That’s a tall order considering all that Sergio has had to deal with, self-afflicted or not. What’s more likely is he will move on with his career carrying the labels others have placed on him. It’s not what was expected for Garcia, but it’s what his professional career has become after such an unexpectedly bumpy road.
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