- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. Bethpage might be the perfect stage for Sergio to steal Tiger's show.

There was a well-attended calcutta held Tuesday night several miles from the Black Course. This is a U.S. Open tradition, albeit somewhat illegal, and the USGA was well represented. The first player taken by the man lucky enough to draw the top pick was, of course, Tiger Woods. The second player taken was Sergio Garcia.

Now, while Garcia's high selection proves absolutely nothing, it does illustrate one undeniable fact. For the last three years, the golf community has been waiting for Garcia to once again play up to his vast potential in a major.

The second the 19-year-old Spaniard stood up to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, the world knew he had the grit for true greatness. He captured our imagination with his leaping exuberance at Medinah and won our admiration with his unforgettably bold, eyes-closed 6-iron. Unfortunately, Garcia hasn't come as close to capturing a major and winning ultimate respect since.

That could all change this week, as Garcia meets a 7,214-yard, par70 Black Course that values his greatest attribute above all others.

"Success on this course is predicated on distance and accuracy off the tee. That's it," said 2001 PGA champion David Toms yesterday. "The greens are pretty basic, so I expect a lot of guys to putt well. But you find the guy who hits it big off the tee, and I mean huge, and keeps it out of the hay, and you'll have your winner's profile."

When the 156-man field tees off today in the 102nd U.S. Open, nobody (including Woods) will have a profile more aptly suited to Bethpage than Garcia.

Based on Toms' template, which seems universally accepted at the longest and one of the tightest Open tracks in history, the key at Bethpage this week should be total driving, a stat kept by the PGA Tour that combines distance and accuracy off the tee. Garcia ranks No.1 on Tour in the category, averaging 291.3 yards off the tee and hitting 71 percent of his fairways.

"I think driving is the main thing here," said Garcia. "And if I'm able to keep driving the ball as well as I have been, then I should be OK, because I'm hitting my irons pretty nicely. Yeah, I'm pretty confident, because I think this course matches my game more than any other we've ever played at a major."

But beyond his Black Course-tailored talents, Garcia also exhibits an attitude toward tangling with Tiger that stands in stark contrast to most of Woods' other would-be challengers.

Quite frankly, golf's professional ranks are swelled with Tiger-philes, players for whom pre-tournament genuflection is the standard and competitive capitulation seems inevitable. When Phil Mickelson was asked about Tiger's 0-for-8 drought in majors played on par-70 courses, not only did he not take the bait, he took to Tiger's defense.

"That's kind of stretching it a little bit to find new angles, isn't it?" said Mickelson, who has apparently been bludgeoned into apologist mode by Woods.

When Colin Montgomerie, another player seemingly suited to Bethpage, was asked to assess his chances at collecting a first major this week, he also hurled himself down before Tiger's altar.

"My chances? Woods hasn't withdrawn, has he?" quipped Monty, an unquestionable tone of serious futility underlying his sarcasm.

Garcia, on the other hand, has yet to raise the white flag. In fact, he has the temerity to stand major-less at the foot of Tiger's empire of dominance and hurl stones of skepticism at the walls.

"I think this course is going to make Tiger hit more drivers, and we'll see how he's hitting the driver," said Garcia, who doesn't believe Woods can pull off his patented miracle flail recovery from the Black Course's gnarly rough. "If you start hitting drivers in the rough and losing your confidence and start thinking, 'I'm just going to hit 2-iron on this hole,' you're going to be hitting some really long iron shots into these greens. Even as high as he hits it, it's tough to keep it on these greens with long irons."

That theory might prove a little less valid after yesterday's green-soaking afternoon downpour. But more important than the theory is Garcia's mindset. He isn't willing to concede anything to Woods.

"He's got seven majors, sure. But everything starts from scratch this week," said Garcia, who no longer fancies the nickname El Nino (Spanish for 'the kid'). "He's a great player, but I don't think he intimidates me. I know what I can do and I know that if I'm on top of my game, I can beat anybody."

Woods still needs a rival. Youth, talent and charisma certainly make Sergio the logical choice. But three years later, we're still awaiting a major breakthrough. And if Garcia wants us to drop El Nino, here's a piece of advice for the game's favorite kid. It's one thing to talk like a man. Golf needs you to start playing like one.


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