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Published: Wednesday, 6/16/2004

Garcia enters U.S. Open on hot streak

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
The last time Sergio Garcia played in a U.S. Open in the New York area, some of the fans gave him a very difficult time. The last time Sergio Garcia played in a U.S. Open in the New York area, some of the fans gave him a very difficult time.
JULIE JACOBSON / AP Enlarge

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - It happened at the 2003 Nissan Open in California. Sergio Garcia had an 8-iron shot from the middle of the fairway. He tried for a little cut, a soft fade into the green. What he got was darn near a shank.

It was at that moment he realized he needed a swing change. Such a thing is not accomplished overnight.

So Garcia, who scored a combined 17 top-10 finishes and won $5.5 million on the PGA Tour in 2001-02, nearly disappeared from view in '03. He finished 35th at the U.S. Open, missed the cut at the PGA Championship and had just four top-25 finishes.

Without getting too technical, Garcia used to take the club away on an outside path, which aimed his clubface left, and it took major movement on his downswing to get back on plane. Now, his takeaway is more on the

proper line.

"I'm definitely happy with the results," said Garcia, who comes to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for this week's U.S. Open with two wins in his last four starts.

But it wasn't an easy transition, in large part because Garcia didn't have the maturity to make it easy.

Ah, Sergio. He can be jovial and caring, almost sensitive at times. He has a great smile and wears his still-youthful enthusiasm almost gleefully on a handsome, dark Mediterranean face. Remember when he began his chase after Tiger Woods with a sprint up the 16th fairway at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah and how we all jumped for joy along with him?

But he can just as easily be petulant with child-like tantrums and a "why-me? " pouty lower lip. He can warm to the game or be cool to the point of disinterest.

To take full advantage of his talents, Garcia first had to come to grips - and not the wiggling and freezing and hand squeezing of seasons past - with his game and his fame. His composure inside the ropes had to match his talent there.

"It's easy to tell yourself to be patient," Garcia said. "It's not so easy to do it."

So there was a gasket-blowing episode after a shot took an odd bounce into water at the Players Championship, and an almost-insufferable performance during a press conference at the Masters after a final round in which he shot 66 but displayed on-course friction with his playing partner, Jerry Kelly.

Garcia can be hard-headed and hot-headed.

But he can also be hard to beat as one of the world's hottest golfers.

That's just about where he is right now with wins at the Byron Nelson in early May and at the Buick Classic at nearby Westchester last weekend. After seeing his official world ranking dip into the mid-30s last year, he has clawed his way back to No. 10 thanks to his recent successes.

"All the work is starting to pay off," he said yesterday. "I've been striking the ball nicely the whole time in the long game. But my short game, chipping and putting, is so much better."

Garcia doesn't even try to hide his enthusiasm about playing at Shinnecock Hills, pinned between the Atlantic Ocean and Great Peconic Bay, and the most unusual of American major championship courses dating to the second U.S. Open in 1896.

"This may be Long Island, but it has a European look to it," he said. "It's almost the perfect links course.

"Driving the ball is going to be huge because you don't want to be coming at some of these greens from the rough. There are going to be some difficult chips and some tough breaks, but if you stay patient and just do your best to get around you should be OK. I know there will be some up-and-downs for pars that will feel like birdies."

This is Garcia's first return to Long Island since the 2002 Open at Bethpage State Park, an inland course about 55 miles west of Shinnecock. The Spaniard contended there before a final-round 74 and a dose of some rowdy, perhaps over-imbibed New York fans got his goat en route to a fourth-place finish.

It was during that Sunday round that Garcia, in another of those rash and immature moments, sent a single-digit message to someone in the gallery. It wasn't the thumbs-up sign. And it wasn't, "We're No. 1."

Garcia said he "never had a doubt I'd come back. It was just a minority. I felt a lot of people were behind me. I understand that better now. I hope I can put myself back in that same position here and test myself again."

With his two recent wins, a number of experts figure Garcia to be among the favorites.

"I wouldn't say that," he said. "But I'm playing nicely. The two wins have been very good for my confidence. I feel I am in control of my game now."

And control of his emotions?

That could well be the key during another grueling test, physical and mental, for the Open championship.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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