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The Year Ahead
The New Year, 2002, will doubtless bring great honours and wealth to the new young guns, Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Nick Dougherty. They are, indeed, as their Walker Cup captain, mentor and friend Peter McEvoy early predicted, great champions in the making. But, for the year ahead at least, they will still be in the making. Sergio Garcia, however, is now the finished article and ready to produce the goods.

Not yet 22 and at the dawning of only his third year as a pro, Garcia has already served his time and long since posted his intent. Last year saw him win on both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently standing at sixth place in the world rankings and he is very hungry. Now fully committed to playing the US tour and competing in 11 tournaments that qualify for the European Order of Merit, he could well be the first European since Sandy Lyle in 1988 to head the US money list. Lyle managed to sustain his place for 133 days that year before falling to seventh in the US and fifth in Europe. Garcia will almost certainly better this in the coming year even if he does not take the number one spots.

Sandy Lyle is of an altogether different sort than Garcia. Whereas Lyle was more akin to a smouldering log from which there occasionally burst forth a brilliant flame; Garcia is altogether more incendiary and phosphorescent in his pyrotechnic display. Garcia is desperate to be the number one man for his own self-gratification. He grows with and relishes in the accolades. He needs the big stage to accommodate his passion and volatility. In addition he is frighteningly determined and all of this makes for the heady cocktail of a great champion. One had the full flavour of it at Sun City when he beat Ernie Els on his own turf with a chip-in that one suspects was a portent of things to come.

He could, of course, lead both Tours' money lists without winning a major - although a major would help. It is unrealistic to expect him to do a Tiger and take all four majors for that, one can confidently predict, will never happen again. But he could pick up one or two - Tiger permitting.

Sticking my neck out further than I should, I would doubt if Tiger would permit him to win at Muirfield. The Open at Muirfield has always produced well seasoned as well as quality champions. Quality, Garcia may be, seasoned he is not. Muirfield champions were never of the emerging type; from Braid through Vardon, Hagen, Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino and Watson to Faldo, all were well qualified before they got there. It is a course for the careful hardened conservative with a sly smile and not the maverick revolutionary with a wicked grin.

Augusta has been lengthened and it will be interesting to see what effect this has on play. It is a place where he who dares wins; just so long he has the nerves and anal sphincter control to handle it. One doubts if Garcia has ever experienced problems with either system so this may well be where he could crack his first big one.

The US Open is having its first ever outing on a public course in New York at the Black Course at the Bethpage Space Park, which is, reputedly a formidable place requiring 'great care and patience', neither of which are basic Garcia characteristics.

Hazeltine, in unlikely Minnesota, where Tony Jacklin survived all that the elements could throw at him to win his US Open and where Payne Stewart benignly also won his, is the setting of this year's PGA. Hazeltine has been described as 'quirky' and, as such, strikes me as eminently suited to Sergio's quest.

But again, it is all down to Tiger Woods. The Tiger has raised the bar in the pro golf high jump over the past two years to a level that only very few can be expected to clear. With the level playing field where all have equal access to the technology of club and ball, the Tiger's lofty pedestal has wobbled a little, if not exactly toppled since his early season Masters win. But I somehow have the feeling that he is capable of raising the bar yet higher and that only Garcia will be capable of routinely clearing it.

Playing his golf in America will be a great advantage to Garcia for he will be weekly playing on excellent golf courses against testing fields. Our European based players, on the other hand, are in the main subjected to venues that few would be prepared to pay and play. Clarke, Harrington, McGinley and Westwood have the talent to take a major but the venues that they play weekly do not exact the same demands as the US Tour courses and honing their ball strike suffers in consequence. Garcia will make his infrequent highly paid sojourns back to his roots on the European circuit and have little to fear.

He will, eventually, have to look over his shoulder carefully to keep an eye on Casey and Dougherty, but all that is yet to come and makes the prospect of the years ahead even more exciting.

©    31 - DECEMBER 2001

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