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For El Nino, today is maturation day

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Welcome to Sergio Garcia's career-defining day.

By the time the gloaming settles over the Angus Monster later today, the 27-year-old Garcia will either be a made or broken man. All that has come before for the sometime Spanish prodigy is irrelevant. His 12 combined PGA and European Tour victories matter not; neither do his past struggles with the putter and raft of major near-misses.

Never before has the uber-talented Garcia gone to bed on the 54-hole lead at a major. Sure, he has played in the final pairing a couple of times on Slam Sundays, accompanying Tiger Woods on his victory strolls at Bethpage (2002 U.S. Open) and Hoylake (2006 British Open). But those majors belonged to Tiger, were Woods' to lose and Garcia's to watch. This week's 136th British Open has belonged to Sergio almost since the first ball and club made contact at Carnoustie on Thursday.

Garcia, in Woodsian fashion, has thus far put a wire-to-wire whipping on both the field and the Angus Monster.

"There's nothing better than seeing your name on the top of the leader board day after day after day," Garcia (9-under 204) said after a bogey-free, third-round 68 on the 7,421-yard, par-71 links. "I'm thrilled about it. I've just got to do it for one more day."

Make no mistake, Garcia does "have to do it." When you're a player with Garcia's credentials — sublime length and accuracy off the tee, marvelous touch, Ryder Cup stalwart, top-20 staple — you must parlay a three-stroke, Saturday night lead into Sunday success.

Especially when that three-stroke lead is over glorified PGA Tour rank-and-filer Steve Stricker, a player who hasn't won any event in six years. Especially when the gap between Stricker and the rest of the field is three more strokes. Especially when that Woods fella, the goliath who has sabotaged Garcia's hopes in six of Sergio's seven top-five major finishes, stands eight strokes in arrears at 1-under.

Given such circumstances, victory is the only acceptable alternative for Garcia. Should he lose today via anything other than an rousing Stricker salvo (think sub-68), Garcia likely would exit Carnoustie a goat in the eyes of the golf world. Garcia's other Slam almosts are all excusable, forgivable, even expected. But Garcia's future would be jeopardized should anything other than Rioja flow from the claret jug tonight.

In Garcia, golf still has a dashing, young potential career foil for Woods. Garcia has proven time and again that he has the ball-striking ability to rival Woods. Now, he must prove he has the major mettle.

There's a fine line between a true champion and a career also-ran — a Tom Watson and a Tom Weiskopf. Garcia could still be either, and today's result will be the first serious step in either direction. Like those two players, Sergio is no stock performer. He's supremely gifted, a fact that was evident even before he exploded into the collective conscious at the 1999 PGA Championship as a gallivanting 19-year-old runner-up.

But golf's history is dotted with the underachieving remains of exactly such players: Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Colin Montgomerie — all precocious talents, most with a sole major victory (two for Norman), each considered a gross underachiever.

In every case, that underachievement has been defined by the failure to close in the major crucible. Every stagger in the Slam spotlight breeds doubt, which spawns stress and conceives future failure. Such is golf's ultimate vicious psychological cycle.

One can't learn to close on the range, in the putting green or in some sports psychologist's office. It's a power summoned from within, some strange combination of heart, guts, acumen and focus the Brits simply call "bottle."

Does Sergio have it? Even he probably doesn't know yet. But there's one thing that is known — through the course of golf history, a player's response to such situations, positive or negative, tends to be repetitive.

Today, everyone will see the stuff of which Sergio is made. Is El Nino, "the kid" who introduced himself to us eight years ago at Medinah, finally ready to become a made man?

"I can't wait to start," Garcia said. "It's going to be a hard day but hopefully one to remember."

The weighty reality is that for Garcia, it's guaranteed to be one nobody will ever forget.