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Sergio Takes Center Stage

At The Belfry, Garcia will test his game, his heart and his cojones against what may be the best golf team ever assembled. "I can't wait," he says. He relishes every collision of risk and reward, expecting a storybook ending. To understand why, you need to know how his story began.

Not so long ago in a land called Castellòn, a boy grew up chasing golf balls. "The course seemed really long," Garcia says, "and I was really short." The course was at Club de Campo del Mediterráneo, in the hills above Valencia, where his father had worked his way up from caddie to club pro. Victor Garcia was a Franco-era Spaniard, a man who believed above all in family and discipline. He also loved golf with undisciplined zeal and passed that contagion down to his son, his niño, Sergio.

At age two the boy was swinging a feather duster in the pro shop, imitating Papa. Soon he was out on the driving range, swinging full-size clubs with the flattest plane in Spain. Always a bit of a runt, Sergio compensated with a bullwhip motion, delaying release of the clubhead until the last split second, for power that helped him outdrive grown men. At age twelve he won the club championship. In childhood photos he is always smiling, the beamish boy who has slain par. At fifteen he was the youngest player ever to win the European Amateur. He ran up a match-play record of 32-1 and had a plus-5.4 handicap, one of the lowest ever posted by an amateur.

"Beating older guys made me think, "Hey, if I try hard I could get good at this game,'" he says today, rolling putts across a sun-swept green at Sawgrass. "Of course I am always still trying!" In person he looks even younger than the player you see on TV—this is a twenty-two-year-old with the small, boyish features of a teenager. Except for his eyes. Four years ago, when his first manager was pestering Sports Illustrated, trying to get the kid some ink, Garcia was a boy among men who didn't trust his English and couldn't look a reporter in the eye. Today, shaking hands, he holds your gaze. He is more direct than he was, more confident, more of a man.

His English still ain't perfect: He says "I theenk" and sometimes mangles our slang, as he did after an Arnold Palmer tee shot at this year's Masters, saying, "Listening to the ovation they gave him, I was getting—what do you call it?—chicken pox." But like his game, his second language is improving fast. As a teen, planning to become famous, he practiced his English by memorizing the victory speech Seve Ballesteros gave at the 1988 British Open.

In 1997, as a seventeen-year-old amateur, Garcia beat 128 pros to win the Spanish tour's Catalonian Championship. Two years later, after the teen dream won the European Tour's Murphy's Irish Open in his sixth professional start, he and Victor celebrated by shaving their heads. Last year the kid won more than $5 million and ranked sixth in the world. Going into this year's British Open he had moved up to fifth and was the youngest player in the top forty. At twenty-two he is more precocious than "young guns" Charles Howell III, David Gossett and Matt Kuchar, and he isn't shy about taking on a certain twenty-six-year-old. When he and Woods tee it up together, Garcia says, "It makes the golf spicier."

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