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Sergio Takes Center Stage

Headlines make his life spicier. Garcia has often been ripped in European newspapers for choosing to play in the U.S. "I like the European Tour," he explains, "but there is more talent in America. In Europe, I think I have to beat forty or fifty guys to win. Over here it's more like eighty." He made matters worse by dabbling in Euro Tour-ism and acting like a brat: During a 1999 tournament at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England—the European Tour's headquarters—he slipped while hitting a shot, then yanked off a shoe and threw it into the gallery. Spanish and English tabloids called him immature, and they weren't entirely wrong. He is, after all, the only pro to withdraw from a tournament due to a bad case of acne (the 1999 St. Jude Classic), the only pro to miss a Tour event with a wrist injury he got playing air hockey in a mall (the '99 Sprint International). But give credit where it's due: He also invented the jump shot. At the PGA Championship at Medinah, Garcia was two shots behind Woods with three holes to play when he found his ball behind a tree, between two roots the width of your arm. It was the gnarliest lie of 1999. The adult play was to chip out, but that would have been admitting defeat, playing for second place. So he took a whack with a six-iron. Garcia shut his eyes at impact, so he never saw the ball sail almost 200 yards, swerving toward the green. He ran uphill, leaping to see his ball safe on the green. That leap made every highlight film, but he still wonders what all the fuss was about. Doesn't everybody chase blind approach shots like Speedy Gonzalez? Two months later, Garcia's exuberance made Michael Jordan's day. There were no huge crowds this time. During a friendly round at the Old Course in St. Andrews, an impromptu game of tag escalated until Jordan was sprinting down the fairway, chasing Garcia, laughing all the way.

As Garcia turned twenty in 2000, he seemed ready to challenge Woods. Then his career shifted into reverse. He finished forty-second on the U.S. money list, went a year and a half without winning and saw his father catch hell for his slump. Victor, who is still the only swing coach his son has ever had, was blasted as a quack, a bush-league nobody.

In April 2001, Sergio defended his dad at a press conference in Spain. "For you he is no good," he told reporters, "but I am happy with the way my father and I work together." To put exclamation points on that ¡Te amo Papa! he promptly beat Phil Mickelson with a Sunday sixty-three at Colonial, then won again at Westchester. He and Victor also reduced the lag in Sergio's swing, making it more reliable, if a shade less explosive. In the last three months of 2001 Garcia earned $2,432,500 and became the youngest member of the world's top ten, and at this year's season-opening Mercedes Championships he proved that while his swing was getting more conventional, his attitude wasn't. On the final hole at Kapalua, with the tournament in the balance, he waved his arms, revving up the crowd. Next came a pitch shot, a putt, a grin, another win.

By then he had also thrown down his golf glove, gauntlet-style. He announced that he wanted to be the top money winner on both the U.S. and European Tours in 2002. It was tall talk for a kid whose high mark on either tour is third—his 1999 finish in Europe's Volvo Order of Merit. It was also a challenge to Woods, who has been chilly toward Garcia since Sergio celebrated a win in their prime-time "Battle at Bighorn" two years ago with a wild one-man tango. Woods does not enjoy being shown up. "We're not close," Garcia says. "Respectful, but not close."

So why challenge Woods with such a public proclamation?

"If you ask a lot of yourself," he says, "you can do great things. Even if I don't reach my goal, I might do great things."

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