- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England It's time for the kid to become a man.
In 1979, a charismatic, 22-year-old Spaniard named Seve Ballesteros came to Lytham & St. Annes as Europe's most gifted young player and left with the claret jug. Both the time and the course seem right for history to repeat itself this week at the 130th British Open, where Sergio Garcia will try to follow in his countryman's legendary footsteps and celebrate his first major coronation at Lytham.
Thus far their career paths have followed an almost eerily similar arc.
At 17, Ballesteros won his first pro tournament (1974 Spanish Under-25s). Garcia did the same by taking the 1997 Catalonian Open as an amateur.
At 19, Ballesteros won his first European PGA Tour event (1976 Dutch Open) and announced himself to major championship audiences at the British Open, earning enormous acclaim for his second-place finish to Johnny Miller at Birkdale. At 19, Garcia matched that effort, winning his first European PGA Tour event at the 1999 Irish Open and then erupting onto the Grand Slam scene at the PGA Championship, losing a riveting stretch duel with Tiger Woods but gaining a legion of fans with his exuberance and panache.
At 21, Ballesteros claimed his first victory on the U.S. Tour (1978 Greater Greensboro Open). Garcia has done him one better this season as a 21-year-old full-timer in the U.S., winning the Colonial and the Buick Classic over the last two months.
That brings us to Lytham, where Garcia hopes to beat Ballesteros to the major laurels by a year on the same course that propelled Seve to superstardom.
"I wish it was that easy, dealing with fate," said Garcia, whose nickname 'El Nino' is Spanish for 'the Kid.' "Maybe it will happen this week, like you say. I know a major is coming for me."
Bold words in the Woodsian era of golf. But Tiger is in the midst of a mini-funk while Garcia has been in top form since late May. Over the last two months, he has played as consistently as anyone on the planet, including U.S. Open and Scottish Open winner Retief Goosen. Like Goosen, Garcia has won twice in his last six starts, adding finishes of T8 at the Byron Nelson, T2 at the Memorial, T12 at the U.S. Open and T14 at the Scottish Open.
And not even Goosen's recent scoring average can match that of Garcia, who with his lithesome power and phenomenal feel has played his last six tournaments in 58-under par with a scoring average of 67.95.
"My confidence is a little higher [than at any previous major], that's for sure, because I have won and I am playing well," said Garcia, whose recent run has quashed much of the criticism he heard after keeping his father, Victor, as his swing coach after a lean 2000 season.
Though British oddsmakers have given Garcia the best Open odds (18-1) outside of Americans Woods (9-4) and Phil Mickelson (14-1), his detractors still claim he is too wild off the tee to contend on a course like Lytham, which features a far deeper, thicker stand of rough than the layout Ballesteros tamed in '79 while hitting only nine fairways all week.
"I do not think that is true. Look at the stats: My driving has been consistent for many months now," said Garcia, who does rank sixth this season in total driving, a category that takes into account both accuracy and length. "Before, when I was playing not so good, it was my wedge that was tormenting me, or sometimes my putter. I think people just see that I am Spanish, and they think that means I am wild with the driver not true and not fair."
The most legitimate criticism of Garcia is that he does not handle adversity particularly well. Or perhaps, more fairly, he tends to respond to poor play in the manner you might expect of a 21-year-old.
He has already authored some notorious outbursts around the globe. He ran crying from the course at Carnoustie after an opening-round 89 at the 1999 British Open. He kicked off a shoe in disgust after slipping on a teebox at Wentworth later that year, hitting a spectator in the gallery. Last year at St. Andrews, he skulled a wedge and then began flailing at the cement-like turf in disgust, drawing a fine from the R&A.;
Garcia tainted an otherwise riveting playoff loss to Aaron Baddeley at the Greg Norman Holden Cup earlier this year by cursing an official after what he felt was an unfair ruling. And just last week, he berated both his caddie and the state of the greens at Loch Lomond after missing a series of short putts at the Scottish Open.
Yesterday, just minutes after one of his managers, Carlos Rodriguez, had his ankle broken by a runaway golf cart near the clubhouse, Garcia got more bad news when he learned the European Tour was fining him for last week's comments.
"I am working on that," said Garcia of his quick-fuse temper. "It is something that you learn. And sometimes some people [take] those things the wrong way, and I have always been the bad guy. But, you know, it is going to happen sometimes. I just have got to calm down and think about it… . You have to stay in control to win a major championship."
Garcia maintained his composure and came close to claiming his first major at the U.S. Open last month at Southern Hills, working his way within one of the lead after three rounds only to see his chances dissolve during a closing 77.
"It was very disappointing because I felt like I was playing well enough to win it," said Garcia. "But that is good too. That shows you that it is golf; when you think you have it under control, it gives you a little smack… . I was still happy with the way I played and the way I handled myself there in contention and everything. It was just a great experience for me."
Garcia's experience at Southern Hills could prove to be just the primer he needed for this week's major exam.
"I think it is definitely coming for Sergio," said Ballesteros, echoing the youngster's words. "He has all the shots to win a major. Now he must go out and prove he has the strength inside to win one."

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