I think if you asked most American golf fans for their feelings on Sergio Garcia prior to this past weekend's Match Play event, they would have given you a pretty negative opinion. Most would say he is a whiner, and that during his younger days he did a fair bit of pouting as well. It wasn't all that long ago that he even dropped as low as spitting in a cup after pulling his ball out.
Sergio recently found himself in the middle of a spat with the World's Number One after he claimed that Tiger interrupted his swing on purpose. He followed this up by making a comment about having Tiger over for dinner to eat fried chicken. Needless to say, it didn't over well and he rightly apologized for the comment. I for one was surprised about that comment because Sergio is a serious soccer fan and FIFA has made a concerted effort to attempt to curb racist comments. Sergio did himself no favors with his handling of that situation. In interviews after The Players Championship he came off sounding like a whiner and a sore loser. Then in the subsequent interview for the Ryder Cup he only dug his hole deeper.
The interesting part of the Tiger/Sergio clash was that it came on the heels of an interview with Sergio on David Feherty. During this interview, he appeared down to earth and as a generally good guy. Misunderstood, perhaps, but not a bad guy. I think this interview with Feherty was very good for Sergio's image. He told the story of heart break with Greg Norman's daughter and how much that devastated him, and we learned a great deal about him. He then took a big step back with the Tiger incident, but then this weekend he took another big step forward with American golf fans.
By now you have probably heard the story or seen it on Golf Channel thirty to forty times. Sergio's ball ended up near a sprinkler head that was crowded with bees. Rickie Folwer had hit a close shot and looked likely to make birdie. Sergio took a drop but was uncomfortable and needed another drop. This all took quite a long time and Rickie missed his putt. On the next hole, a par three, Rickie had an 18-foot putt and Sergio looked to be about seven or so feet. Sergio offered to pick up both putts and move to the next hole with a halve. Sergio ended up losing one down.
In the post-round interview Sergio was unapologetic for his actions even though he lost the match. He said he felt bad about taking so long to take his drop and felt that Rickie missed his putt because of the drop. He would claim in his interviews that the game of golf was missing sportsmanship and he felt it needed more of the kind of action he took.
Sergio made a very good decision here. He gave himself far better public relations by giving Rickie the putt than winning that match and potentially losing in the next round. In fact, I'd say Garcia generated as much PR as actually winning the event! His image, which was mostly bad over here in the U.S., now improves dramatically. Sponsors which may have originally said that Sergio was not someone they wanted promoting their products may now say that he is worth a shot. I feel at the elite level - after you get past Tiger, Rory and Phil - the difference in how much you take home is determined by the sponsors. Sergio did himself big favors in this department.
Some may say that Sergio did not have to give the putt and doing so was unnecessary. By the rules they are right. Rickie himself said that Sergio did not need to do that. Rickie said that the drop was necessary because of the bees and he didn't feel that Sergio took too much time in doing so. Still I think Sergio viewed the decision as though giving the putt on the next hole could only boost his image in the eyes of golf fans. If he won the match he would be the hero that gave up a good look at birdie and still won. if he lost he lost valiantly but being the better sportsman.
I still remember vibrantly watching Tiger and Sergio battle at Medina when he was basically a kid running around without a care. He has not fulfilled his potential. By now he should have won a major, maybe two, maybe six. He's come close in the past but not pulled it off. American golf fans view this as someone who can't close the deal. He is not a winner. I think he has realized that he should take a different approach to winning over golf fans in the vein of Phil Mickelson. Win them over by being the lovable loser and by being a sportsman.
Photo credits: © Richard Heathcote.