He heard the roar. After losing his last match he found himself hurrying toward the seventeenth green at The Country Club in Brookline, jostling through throngs of enemy fans. That's when Sergio Garcia heard a huge, joyful noise and knew his team had lost the 1999 Ryder Cup. "The Americans were jumping around," he says. "I was sure it was over." But it wasn't. To his amazement, U.S. players and their wives had danced and jumped on the green while Garcia's countryman Jose Maria Olazabal waited to putt. Olazabal could still tie Justin Leonard, who had just jarred a forty-five-foot putt, but now the green was being trampled and Ollie was clearly distracted. "That moment, it was difficult to watch," Garcia says, looking annoyed. Then his smile reappears. It is never gone for long. He shrugs—a shrug that says whatever is Spanish for "whatever"—and reshapes the memory with positive spin: "The Americans apologized, as they should, and I accept it. And now we try again to beat them!"
Garcia, 22, might be the most appealing professional golfer of all. He might be the most talented (except for Tiger Woods) and could soon be the richest (ditto), perhaps even the one with the most gorgeous girlfriend (no comment). And now we are getting to the heart of the matter, for like every other player he must always be compared to Woods. Unlike most of the rest, however, Garcia invites the comparison. He welcomes the challenge. "I want to beat Tiger," he says. He is smiling, but not joking.
Can Garcia and the European Ryder Cup team upset an American squad led by Woods and Phil Mickelson at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England?Oddsmakers are calling the U.S. a 2-1 favorite. One Cup veteran told T&L Golf he will be "shocked if Europe wins." But Garcia thinks that's total toro. "It's gonna be tight," he says. "That's the beauty of the Ryder Cup—it's always tight. The U.S. guys might think they will win easily, but we know we need every point, so we fight for every point. We try so hard!"
At Brookline, where he was the youngest player in the event's seventy-two-year history, he won three points before losing a pivotal singles match to Jim Furyk on the final day, the Euros' Black Sunday. After Olazabal's missed putt sealed America's victory, Garcia wept in the locker room. This month, as Cup play returns to European turf, he will be called on to play a central role. For a decade Colin Montgomerie has been the European side's de facto leader, but now Garcia—still four years younger than anyone else on either team—is Europe's best player by far. Whether that qualifies him to lead Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and nine other older pros into battle is a matter of opinion.
"If he's their leader, our side will be better off," says Scott Hoch of the U.S. team. "Guys like Montgomerie and Clarke have a lot more experience."
But Bernhard Langer, who has more Cup experience than any other active Ryder Cupper, is in Garcia's corner. "I sure hope Sergio emerges as leader of our team," says Langer, who has won eighteen points for Europe since 1981. "He is already a great player, and his game gets stronger all the time."