The memory lives in the mind's eye with the clarity of a perpetual video replay. As soon as Sergio Garcia ran out from behind that tree on the 16th hole at Medinah Country Club in a youthful leap down the fairway, watching his rather remarkable shot track toward the green in the 1999 PGA Championship, Tiger Woods became the establishment. The look of weary relief when Woods putted out on the last hole to finally subdue Garcia made it clear that the 19-year-old Spaniard had replaced Woods as the face of the game's energized youth.
Now Garcia is finding out – as Tiger did – how early it can get late in the game of golf. Adversity always made Woods tougher. Now we will get a chance to see how Garcia responds to difficult times.
Garcia's collapse Sunday in the final round of the Wachovia Championship was of record proportions. No one in the history of the PGA Tour has blown a lead larger than the 6-stroke advantage Garcia had going into the final round. And you have to go back to the 1996 Masters and Greg Norman to find the last time anyone on tour squandered an advantage that large. The most disturbing thing for Garcia has to be the fact that his putting is pulling the rest of his game down. The age of 25 is too disturbingly young to get yippy.
Garcia started his collapse with a 30-inch miss on the very first hole and then missed from inside 10 feet on three of the next four holes. As often happens when the putting goes, it puts added pressure on the rest of the game. Just ask Nick Faldo. When his putter bailed on him in the final round of the 1996 British Open, he never regained his touch and it took the rest of his game with it. After opening with that series of missed putts, Garcia's driver, normally his most reliable club, abandoned him on Nos. 9 and 10. After as 6-foot miss on the 15th hole, Garcia gave up the lead when he pulled his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th. Fittingly, Garcia was knocked out of the playoff with Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh by a 3-putt on the first extra hole, missing a 6-footer.
Here is a disturbing fact for Garcia: There are two statistical ways to measure putting – either average number of putts per round or average number of putts per green hit in regulation. Sergio stinks by both standards. He is averaging 29.42 putts per round, which is 165th on tour, and 1.821 putts per green when he has a birdie opportunity, which is 163rd on tour. The danger of a collapse like he had Sunday in Charlotte is it never completely leaves your mind, and is especially likely to resurface when you have a 6-foot putt that matters.
Four other PGA Tour players have blown 6-stroke leads, none as famously as Norman. And Norman never really recovered from that disastrous day at Augusta National when he went from 6 ahead to 5 behind Faldo, closing with a 78 to Faldo's 67.
"He didn't shoot a high number or anything," Singh said, trying to find the silver lining in Garcia's rather massive storm cloud. "He didn't shoot 5- or 6-over to lose it. We won it. He's going to feel it a little bit, but not as bad as what Greg did losing The Masters."
True, Garcia did piece together a respectable 72 in the closing round, but that was on a day and on a course when everyone around him was going low. Singh closed with a 66 to get into the playoff he eventually won. While it is true that Norman's collapse was far more shocking than what happened at Wachovia, both because of the score he shot and the enormity of the stage upon which he did his dance of despair, Garcia likely will have his own demons to deal with as a result of his unraveling.
"They say you learn more from your losses than your wins," Garcia said. "And I've got a lot from this week to learn."
One of the things that Garcia has no doubt already learned is the weight of expectation. Already in his seventh season on the PGA Tour, Sergio will soon start to hear the chants of "when will he win a major?" that started to haunt Phil Mickelson at about this age. Certainly, the pressure won't really start to build until Garcia nears his 30th birthday. With five PGA Tour victories and nine more internationally, Sergio's career has been far from a failure. But 6-stroke collapses, no matter what the tournament, usually are added to a player's resume when they are on the downside of greatness, not on the climb to the top.
When Garcia ran out from behind that tree nearly six years ago, he became the face of the future, the baton of youth had been handed off to him by Woods. While Sergio has run nicely since the handoff, the sprint to greatness hasn't been as swift as we expected.
Yes, there is a lot for Sergio to learn from his collapse at Wachovia, and a key part of the lesson is something both Woods and Mickelson learned the hard way: Great players are held to an unfair standard. More is expected of them. Unreasonable demands of performance are made. Garcia is heading into an interesting – and dangerous – stretch of his career. What we may have witnessed Sunday was a career-defining moment for Garcia. It will be a test of his mental toughness to see if we look back on Wachovia as the beginning of Garcia's ascent to a higher plateau of greatness, or whether it foreshadowed disappointments to come.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine