Originally created 08/29/98

Spaniard Garcia is no stranger to greatness



ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Devilish weather has accrued its own nickname of "El Nino," yet there's this wiry lad from Spain walking these venerable fairways at Oak Hill Country Club who causes his share of golf grief.

He is Sergio Garcia, El Nino if you will, and if I listed his litany of accomplishments as a Spanish 18-year-old, I'd run out of inches and accrue carpal tunnel syndrome.

When he comes to Augusta for the Masters next April, you may have to consider this prodigy to be a pre-tournament favorite. His invitation comes via a British Amateur title last June, a 7-and-6 demolition of Craig Williams in the 36-hole final.

And come Sunday, he may carry the prestigious Havemayer Trophy with him to Spain, signifying his dominance of this week's U.S. Amateur. In a match where haymakers came flying from two amateur heavies, Garcia's steely nerves and go-for-broke swings bumped Georgia Tech's Matt Kuchar from his championship pedestal 2-and-1.

Garcia is now the favorite to become the first European to claim this event since 1911.

"He plays this course a little differently than I do, than most people do," Kuchar said.

He plays a different game, with swing doctors comparing Garcia's lag to Hogan's. Comparisons are normal when dealing with prodigies, but only with time can we measure their actual greatness.

Holy Bright Future, Batman.

Garcia's pretty darned special, carrying with him the aura of invincibility that comes with winning tournaments in seven different countries. Especially if you consider that at age 12, he won his club championship in Castellon where his father, Victor, is the teaching pro. A year later he was a scratch player. While only 14, he made the cut at a European Tour event, the Mediterranean Open.

Then came 15, where he won the European Amateur, exempting him to the British Open the following year. At 17, he won the Catalina Open, a Spanish PGA Tour event. He won national amateurs in France and Spain. His handicap, a plus-5.6, is the lowest in the world.

He has had greatness thrust upon him at such an early age that anything other than bushels of major championships will be seen as a disappointment. Garcia embraces this challenge like he would a second shot in sticky rough where his ball must fly under branches and over hills and land soft to halve a hole.

"If you do not want to be the best, why be out here?" Garcia asked after his extravagant play in ousting Kuchar.

"Golf is a very hard game. It is one that requires a lot of practice, a lot of patience. To be the very best requires a lot of work."

It also requires a splash of swashbuckling attitude. Like at No. 14 Friday. Most players approach the 327-yard uphill par-4 with a long iron followed by a sand wedge, a play that Kuchar gave. Not Garcia.

After watching Wednesday opponent Ben Garner hit his driver there, and with his Spanish juices flowing following a miraculous par-save a hole before, Garcia wielded his big stick and drove it into the green's guarding rough.

He pitched to five feet, birdied and wrenched the match lead.

It takes gumption to think like that, especially in a quarterfinal match being followed by the week's largest gallery.

"A decision like that shows he's got an awful lot of guts, an awful lot of confidence," said Jose Marquina, a Miami businessman who helps fund Garcia's expenses.

Garcia talks and swings like a professional, and it's rare to see an amateur don a King Cobra hat and a King Cobra bag. Still, he will hold off on his pro status till after the 1999 Masters.

"I'll wait because how many times will I get to play there?" he asked.

Eventually, he may earn his lifetime invitation.