- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Watching Sergio Garcia stand over a golf ball is a gripping experience. He squeezes the club once … then relaxes his fingers. Squeezes it again relaxes. Squeezes it again relaxes. Over and over he does this, until you're muttering Spanish expletives to yourself. For the love of Franco, Sergio, would you just hit the darn shot?

For all his fidgeting, though, Garcia seems to have a pretty good handle on things these days. In fact, after his victory yesterday in the Buick Classic, you have to wonder if he hasn't established himself as Tiger Woods' primary competition now and for decades to come.

More and more the past couple of years it has become clear that Phil Mickelson and David Duval, for all their talents, simply aren't up to the job. They both had a chance to win the U.S. Open two weekends ago with Woods well out of the picture and they both came up woefully short. They also had a chance to win the Masters in April this time with Woods very much in the picture but they couldn't pull it off then, either.

Right now, the two of them are a mental mess. They've got Tiger on the brain. They're frustrated by their repeated failures in majors. They're prime candidates for a session with the Dalai Lama. And that's not good for golf, because Woods needs to be challenged the way Jack Nicklaus was challenged by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in the beginning (and by Lee Trevino and Tom Watson later on). But if Mickelson and Duval can't compete with him on a semi-regular basis, then who can?

Ernie Els? He's had his opportunities, but like the other two, appears to be missing something. Vijay Singh? Doesn't win enough plus he's almost 40. Hal Sutton? Heck, he's older than Vijay (43). Nope, it's gotta be Sergio. Sergio or pray for rain.

Granted, it's still early for the kid. He didn't capture his first PGA Tour title until five weeks ago, for goodness sakes. But, oh, how he has played in his last four tournaments a winner at Colonial, second at Memorial, 12th in the U.S. Open (but only a stroke back going into the final round), first again at Westchester. How many players have put together a streak like that the past few years?

Answer: Only Tiger. Mickelson had five top-3 finishes in six events earlier this year but didn't win any of them. Singh placed second, third, fourth and second in consecutive events in February and March but again, no victories. Duval won back-to-back twice in '99 but never put together a five-week stretch like Garcia's. (The only other noteworthy hot streak was put together by Fred Couples, who in '98 posted successive finishes of second, third, second, 18th and first. But that was kind of Freddie's last roar.)

It takes a special player to stay that hot for that long, especially when you're going up against strong fields every week. (Colonial, the Memorial, the Open and Westchester ain't exactly the Kemper.) And Sergio, it appears, is that kind of player. Of course, we had a feeling he might be ever since he pushed Woods to the limit in the '99 PGA at the age of 19. Then there was his victory over Tiger in that made-for-TV match-play event last year; it didn't mean anything, really except that Duval had lost under similar circumstances.

Garcia has had some hiccups since his Sergiomania Summer of two years ago. He has played wretchedly at times (see the '99 British Open) and for a while went through caddies the way most golfers go through putters. "Sergio's [young]," said Jerry Higgenbotham, one of the caddies he discarded, "and he wants everything. He'll probably learn down the road that just because you have one bad week, it's not the caddie's fault."

Sergio, it's obvious, has learned a lot of things since then. More than anything, he has learned what it takes to be competitive week in and week out. Not make-the-cut competitive, win-the-tournament competitive. Fifteen of his last 19 rounds have been in the 60s. Only one of them the 77 he shot to kill his chances in the Open has been over par. That's not just great golf, it's Tigeresque.

Years from now, people may point to these last five weeks as the period when Sergio exited his Phenom Phase and became a Major Player on the world stage. The game can certainly use him his smile and his charisma and his golfing gifts. Now we'll see what Mr. Woods has to say.

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