Wachovia plays games with Garcia's confidence

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sergio Garcia looked at ease in the spotlight during the Wachovia Championship, starting with a private party two days before the tournament. Standing on stage before a packed house, with a beer in his hand and beautiful women at his side, he belted out the chorus to "Mustang Sally."

He was even more confident at his day job, building a six-shot lead at Quail Hollow going into the final round, certain that his struggles with the putter were almost over and his best golf was just around the corner.

All that changed in 19 holes.

Garcia made history for the wrong reason Sunday, matching the largest final-round collapse in PGA Tour history before making an early exit from the three-man playoff by missing a 6-foot par putt that never had a chance.

There was quiet shock in his voice, a numb expression on his freckled face as he spoke to a room full of reporters. He stared at his feet, looking up occasionally to answer a question or to glance at the television to see Vijay Singh outlast Jim Furyk on the fourth extra hole and claim a trophy everyone figured would belong to Garcia.

"It's one of those things," Garcia said, a phrase he repeated five times in 10 minutes.

Garcia is only 25, way too young for this to be any kind of fork in a career long saddled with high expectations. The spotlight won't leave any time soon, because he is the defending champion at this week's Byron Nelson Championship.

"I've got to just relax until Thursday and get everything back in shape, and take the positives out of this week," Garcia said. "They say you learn more from your losses than from your wins. And I've got a lot from this week to learn."

The positives aren't too hard to find.

No one hit the ball better at Quail Hollow, where the fairways were as crusty and firm as they have been anywhere this year on the PGA Tour. Garcia moved his ball with a slight draw or a gentle fade, whatever the hole required.

And while he joined four others in the record books for losing a six-shot lead in the final round -- Greg Norman was the most recent at the 1996 Masters -- Garcia was the only one who didn't shoot over par.

He shot an even-par 72, on a day where Singh and Furyk each closed with 66.

"He didn't play badly," Singh said. "He didn't shoot a high number or anything. We caught him. He's going to feel it a little bit, but not as bad as what Greg did during the Masters."

It wasn't as bad as Bobby Cruikshank shooting an 80 to lose the 1928 Florida Open, or Hal Sutton closing with a 77 in the 1983 Anheuser-Busch Classic. The other player to blow a six-shot lead in the final round was Gay Brewer, who closed with a 73 in the 1969 Danny Thomas Diplomat Classic to pave the way for a Sunday charge by Arnold Palmer.

Norman closed with a 78 at Augusta National, turning a six-shot lead into a five-shot loss in a tournament that became a defining moment in his career.

Singh doesn't expect that to be the case with Garcia.

"Sometimes it's harder to play with a big lead," Singh said. "I've found that out myself. Instead of trying to win the golf tournament, you don't want to lose it. If guys are catching up ... you kind of start to get nervous."

Garcia showed that on the first hole.

After running a slippery 8-footer for birdie some 30 inches by the cup, he decided to finish off the hole even though Furyk had a 6-footer for par. Garcia's simple par putt caught the lip.

"I think he just lost concentration," Furyk said.

Then came an 8-foot birdie on the second hole that missed. He asked his caddie, Glenn Murray, to help read a 10-foot birdie putt on the fourth, but that didn't help. He missed another 10-footer for birdie on the fifth.

"I played awesome the first eight holes," Garcia said. "I should have been easily 3 or 4 under, and I was 1 (under). It was tough. To see that you hit it to 10 feet every time and you can't make a putt ... you know, it cost me."

And even after Singh flubbed a chip that turned birdie into bogey on the par-5 15th, falling into a tie with Garcia, the Spaniard blew a chance to take control of the tournament. From 250 yards in the fairway, his 2-iron on the 15th stopped 6 feet from the hole. Garcia missed that putt, too, and had to settle for birdie.

Singh tried to cut through the tension during the first hole of the playoff, when all three players had the cup surrounded with testy par putts, ranging from Garcia at 6 feet to Furyk at just over 4 feet.

"I told the guys, 'Good, good, good. Let's go to the next tee box,"' Singh said.

They all laughed, although it was uneasy laughter from Garcia.

By then, the fearless confidence was gone.

And after the putt slid below the cup, so was the tournament.

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