- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

El Nino authored the perfect storm yesterday at Congressional.

Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia scorched around Old Blue’s front-nine in 30 strokes yesterday to sprint to the top of a high-profile leader board and then held on down the stretch to claim the Booz Allen Classic by two strokes over 2004 champion Adam Scott, Davis Love and Ben Crane.

“It’s just been a great week — really spectacular,” the 25-year-old Garcia said after a final-round 65 propelled him to a 14-under 270 and his sixth PGA Tour victory. “This course is one of the greats, and I feel honored to have had the chance to play and win here.”

Garcia began the day at 8 under amid a marquee 21-man scrum of players bunched between 7 under and 10 under after 54 holes, the largest such cluster of players in contention on tour this season.

Many of those players, such as 55-year-old third-round leader Tom Kite (74 for 277), eliminated themselves with uninspiring play on the front nine. And while most of the others were simply treading water on a 7,232-yard, par-71 layout that was firming up and protected by a bevy of tucked Sunday pins, Garcia did a little front-nine freestyle.

Thanks to some stellar iron play and a putter that appears to have emerged from a three-year hibernation, Garcia birdied Nos.1, 4, 7, 9 and 10, eagled the par-5 sixth from 18 feet and stepped onto the 11th tee suddenly in command of the event with a three-stroke lead at 15 under.

“If you throw [Nos.] 11 and 12 in there — because I barely missed shortish birdie putts on both of those — it was as good a stretch of golf as I’ve ever played,” said Garcia, who always has been a tee-to-green maven but has struggled mightily with the short stick in recent years. “I was hitting it close all day, and it was nice to see myself rolling the ball and seeing the ball. I just couldn’t miss. Every putt — it didn’t matter what I did, it was going only one place. It’s nice to get that feeling back.”

Garcia has spent the past three seasons outside the top 125 on tour in putting. And coming to Congressional, he had swooned to 151st in the crucial category. But this week, he led the field in putting (107). And yesterday, with the likes of Scott, Love and 1997 Congressional king Ernie Els (276) chasing him, Garcia needed the blade just 24 times.

Garcia attributed much of this week’s startling turnaround in his putting to a drill Scott shared with him earlier in the week. The two twentysomething titans are close friends. And when Garcia’s caddie, Glen Murray, began whining to Scott about his man’s putting woes Wednesday, Scott suggested that Garcia try making a series of short putts on the practice green while looking at the hole and ignoring technique.

“It worked for me, so I told him to give it a try,” said Scott, who overcame his own putting struggles using similar feel-based drills. “Hopefully, he keeps putting good. Maybe I can get a commission off him.”

After his torrid front, Garcia cooled a bit on Old Blue’s more demanding back nine. Three missed fairways in a row (Nos.13-15) yielded his first bogey of the day at the 15th. But Garcia responded with a fist-shaking 25-foot birdie at the 16th. And with both Love and Crane already in the clubhouse at 12 under, Garcia stood in the fairway of the signature 17th at 15 under knowing only Scott at 13 under on the tee behind him had a legitimate shot of chasing him down.

And just as it did in the 1997 U.S. Open, the 17th hole made Old Blue’s final proclamation on its preference in champions. That was the hole that sank Tom Lehman and doomed rabbit-eared Colin Montgomerie while tapping Els at the 1997 Open. And yesterday, it again played crippler/kingmaker. Both Garcia and Scott faced nearly identical 140-yard approaches to the peninsula green from the right edge of the fairway.

Garcia flushed a wedge over the green, but his ball landed just a foot into the rough and spun back from the brink of oblivion, leaving him with a 12-foot birdie putt. Scott’s shot from 133 yards with a sand wedge landed two feet farther right and into the rough than Garcia’s. And instead of spinning back for a potential tournament-tying birdie bid, Scott’s ball bounded forward, skipped through the bunker behind the green and leapt into the water.

“I never thought it would go that far. I never thought it could go that far,” Scott said after closing with a 68 that included only that one miscue. “It wasn’t a bad shot. I flushed it. … It must have hit really hard. It was a bit of a bad break really. But, you know, you get the good breaks when you win.”

Scott’s waterlogged bogey made Garcia’s handling of the par-3 18th relatively unimportant. And that was certainly a good thing for the Spaniard, who claimed he saw the ghost of Wachovia, where he blew a six-stroke lead earlier this year, floating about him on the 18th tee. Instead of playing his natural gentle draw to the pin that was perched precariously over the water on the green’s extreme front-left shelf, Garcia tried to hit a high cut to the center of the green.

The result was an atrocity Garcia described as a “beautiful pushed, sliced, shanked 8-iron.” He gouged his way across the green from the front right rough en route to a closing bogey. But the battle already had been won.

“It was a disappointing way to finish, a little ugly, but it was still an amazing week,” said Garcia, who enters next week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst as one of the in-form favorites. “Next week is a brand-new start. I was fortunate to win this week, and next week I’ll have to get back in my game — hit the ball well, chip well, putt well. It’s going to be difficult, but I’m definitely looking forward to it. … My confidence is very high.”

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