LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- At the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Sergio Garcia was a skinny 16-year-old kid playing in his first major. In 1995, the Spaniard had qualified for the Open by becoming the youngest player to win the European Amateur. Flamboyant and precocious with a swashbuckling style, Garcia was already being compared to countryman Seve Ballesteros, who had won two of his three Open titles at Lytham. That week Ballesteros would play practice rounds with the youngster and introduce him to players.
But it was Tom Lehman who would perhaps make the biggest impression on Garcia in his maiden Open. Lehman had just earned his fourth top-3 finish in a major in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where for the second year in a row he had been the 54-hole leader yet lost by a shot to Steve Jones.
One night during tournament week, Garcia saw Lehman at dinner and walked over to give him a message.
"I think you deserve to win," Garcia said. "It's time for you to win a major."
After missing the cut, Garcia followed Lehman's group on the weekend. Ultimately, Lehman would hold off Ernie Els and Mark McCumber for a two-shot win and his first major championship. In the postround celebrations on Sunday night, Lehman let Garcia hold the Claret Jug.
"You'll win a couple of those before you're through," Lehman told Garcia.
It's been 16 years since that eventful Sunday afternoon on the northwest coast of England, and Garcia still hasn't claimed that first Claret Jug or any other major championship. He's won 22 events worldwide since turning pro in 1999 and has had flashes of brilliance, such as a dramatic second-place finish at the 1999 PGA Championship and a win at the 2008 Players Championship. But he's never lived up to the potential that Lehman and many others had for him all those years ago.
Wild ambition, the weight of expectations and a number of bitter disappointments in big events have turned the energetic kid with a load of dreams into a hardened and deflated veteran at just 32.
In April at the Masters, Garcia finally had a breakdown over his inability to win a major. All the hurts and failures over the years that were simmering reached a boiling point. Peeling away at his peace of mind were memories of the 10-foot putt that lipped out on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie in 2007 that would have given him that first major championship. He lost to Padraig Harrington in the ensuing four-hole aggregate playoff. But those were maybe easier memories than his previous trip to Carnoustie, when he shot 89-83 in his first two rounds in '99. And then there were the off years between 2008 and 2011 when his game hit rock bottom and he missed the '10 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.
"I'm not good enough. I don't have the thing I need to have," Garcia said at Augusta in April. "In 13 years, today the conclusion is I need to play for second or third place.
"I have my chances and my opportunities, and I waste them. I have no more options. I waste my options. Tell me something I can do."
Since those frustrated musings that came after a third-round 75, Garcia's best finish on the PGA Tour has been a tie for 13th at Colonial. At Olympic in June's U.S. Open, he tied for 38th.
Royal Lytham represents a chance for Garcia to renew his vows with the majors where he first got a taste of the significance of these championships from Lehman. Garcia's total of 16 top-10s, including nine top-5s in 55 majors, is a great achievement. But it's not the record that people had for him in 1996.
Yet Lehman was on to something when he told Garcia that he would someday be an Open champion. From the beginning, Garcia could control his ball around the wind-laden links courses. He has the late Ballesteros' imagination, touch and feel for the big moment.
In 2001, when the Open was last held at Lytham, Garcia finished in a tie for ninth. Since then, he has six top-10s in the Open Championship, his best record in the majors. Garcia has said that the tournament is his favorite major.
In the first two rounds, Garcia will be paired with Justin Rose and Tiger Woods. As much as Lytham marks Garcia's beginnings in majors, Tiger symbolizes all of the Spaniard's unrealized potential. When the two were in a heated duel at the '99 PGA, many of us thought we were witnessing the start of a seminal rivalry in the game. But that never came to fruition as Woods sped away from everyone in the world with a display of perfection never seen in the sport. Woods loomed such a large shadow over Garcia that the Spaniard was jokingly compelled to thank the 14-time major champion for not being in the field after Garcia won the '08 Players Championship.
But Garcia has to move on now. The game has moved on since he first came to Lytham as the kid who would become affectionately known as El Nino. Younger players like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler now fill the place where he once stood.
Garcia is bigger and stronger now with fewer of the waggles that characterized his early swing, but somewhere deep in his soul is the starry-eyed kid who chased Lehman around Royal Lytham & St. Annes on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
This time around, though, the fairy tale that it was back in '96 could become a reality, and he could hold the Claret Jug as the winner of the 2012 Open Championship.