MEDINAH, Ill. — Sergio Garcia has never been so happy to lose a title.
Two years after a slump relegated him to the administrative role of vice captain at the Ryder Cup, Garcia is back where he belongs. His win at last month's Wyndham Championship earned him a spot on his sixth European team
"It was definitely a little bit of an inspiration to see your teammates playing and you not really being able to do much," Garcia said Wednesday. "So it definitely helped. I hope that it was one of the reasons why I'm here now."
Whatever the reasons, the Europeans are thrilled to have Garcia back out on the course.
Garcia may be a flop when it comes to the majors — he pretty much owns that dreaded "Best Player Never to Win" title — but he is perhaps the finest Ryder Cup player of his generation. With 16 points in his previous five appearances, the 32-year-old is already ninth on Europe's all-time list. He needs only nine more points to catch leader Nick Faldo, which looks feasible considering he won at least three matches in each of his first four appearances.
He has Europe's third-best point percentage, and has played twice as many matches (14-6-4) as the two guys in front of him. (Ian Poulter is 9-2-0 and Luke Donald is 8-2-1.) He has never lost in foursomes.
"He's very passionate about the Ryder Cup," said Lee Westwood, the only European with more experience. "He gets stuck in."
Two years ago, however, Garcia was simply stuck.
Devastated by a breakup with Greg Norman's daughter, his game unraveled. After winning The Players Championship in November 2008, he went 2½ years without a top-three finish. It would be almost three years before he'd win again, on either the PGA or European tours. His ranking, a career-best No. 2 in 2009, plunged as low as 85.
He didn't come close to qualifying for the 2010 Ryder Cup, and he knew Colin Montgomerie couldn't afford to waste one of his captain's picks on someone whose game was in total shambles. So he asked Montgomerie if he could be part of his staff — a job normally reserved for golfers on the back side of their careers, not one who had just celebrated his 30th birthday.
"I think that made him realize how important it is to be a player in the team," current European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said. "I remember his words when we were having a little chat a couple years ago, he said, 'If I knew this, I wouldn't have come' — in the sense that he wanted to be playing."
Not that Garcia ever showed it. Garcia has the same passion for the Ryder Cup as Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros, and the event is one of the few occasions when he'll let down his guard and give a glimpse of the almost whimsical exuberance that made him so appealing as a teenager. He made the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker as he bounded around Celtic Manor, cheering on all of European teams, offering advice to the rookies and relaying messages to Montgomerie and the other assistants.
When Graeme McDowell made a 15-foot birdie on the 16th hole to beat Hunter Mahan and give Europe the Ryder Cup for the fourth time in five meetings, Garcia was as elated as if he'd delivered the winning point.
"We achieved what we wanted to achieve that week, so it was very positive," he said. "But at the same time, I'd rather be on this side than on the other one."
Especially at Medinah, the site of his spectacular showdown with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship.
Just 19 then, he played with audacious abandon, ripping balls through trees, jumping into the air to see where his shots landed. He even dared to talk some smack to Woods, who was so fearsome in those days he could beat most of his opponents simply by showing up at the range. When a birdie on 13 got Garcia within three, he turned around, looked back at Woods on the tee and tugged his cap as if to say, "Your turn."
And who could forget the tree? When Garcia's tee shot on 16 sailed wide right and settled behind the knotted roots of a large oak tree, he grabbed a 6-iron, closed his eyes, swung and then sprinted out to the fairway to watch the ball land on the green.
Garcia wound up second to Woods, but he had left his mark on Medinah. When the PGA Championships returned seven years later, Garcia finished in a tie for third. He has finished third or better at only three other majors: the 2008 PGA in Oakland Hills (tie for second), the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie (second) and the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst (tie for third).
"It has changed a little bit," Garcia said, referring to Medinah's No. 3 Course. "Personally, I liked it better in '99. I thought it was a better course."
After his stint as a spectator, however, Garcia really wouldn't care if they asked him to play in a parking lot.
So long as he's playing.
"I feel pretty good about my game," he said. "I'm hoping to play well, help my team and my teammates as possible and just try to get as many points as I can so we can achieve the goal we came here to do."