AUGUSTA, Ga. – In 1999, at the age of 19, Sergio Garcia hit a spectacular shot off a tree root at the PGA Championship that caused him to sprint up the fairway and leap in the air to get a glimpse of it rolling onto the green. He wouldn't win that tournament – he finished second – but he was young and fresh, and if not the future of golf then at the very least the expected rival to Tiger Woods.
Rory McIlroy was 10 years old, a golf prodigy in Northern Ireland, and Garcia, the Spaniard, not surprisingly was a role model.
"Yes, Rory was a big fan of Sergio's," Gerry McIlroy, Rory's father said Friday as he watched his son at the Masters. "Sergio was a young guy and was very good. All the kids looked up to Sergio and Tiger."
Sort of the way they now do to Rory and Tiger.
It's McIlroy, 22, that's the next big thing in golf, the likely successor to Woods as the most dominant and charismatic star. Sergio never got much higher than that day in 1999, his promise never fulfilled. Seventeen times he finished top 10 in a major yet never won. Tiger, of course, kept being Tiger.
"Sergio … could've won many, many majors," Rory McIlroy said.
He could win this one. Yet so could Rory, and that's part of the issue. Both played well Friday, both finished at 4-under, both are tied for third, one behind Jason Dufner and Freddie Couples.
It felt different though. Sergio is no longer taken seriously as a contender in a major championship. Younger fans who now idolize McIlroy have to be reminded that Sergio was once as hot as their guy, the cool European challenger.
Garcia's threesome played just in front of McIlroy's, which meant that golf's former bright young star wasn't just figuratively being chased by golf's new bright young star, but McIlroy's massive galleries would spill forward and overwhelm Garcia's now small ones.
Garcia made some fine shots, but he booted away a shot at the lead on 18 and carried himself with a distant demeanor.
He spent much of his post-round press conference complaining about an injured middle finger. He even kindly displayed it for a reporter who asked whether it was on his right or left hand.
"This one," Garcia said with a laugh, causing a cringe from an Augusta National member seated next to him.
Garcia also lamented mud balls, the rain, the cold and the course conditions. For a guy coming off a 68, he didn't sound or look too pleased. He even agreed with a question about whether the Masters was the least likely place for him to win a major.
"It's the one that I have done the worst, so probably," he said.
Garcia wore yellow Friday. He has a beard now. He is 32 and doesn't even look young anymore. He's been in the spotlight for so long, he seems older. Based on the pulchritude of many in his gallery, it's wrong to suggest this no-major-championship thing has been a major drag on his life (if we could all be so ill-fated).
He'd sure like one, though.
Last year he played his way up into the top three of the leaderboard on Saturday only to have the wheels come off on the ninth hole. He dropped seven shots from there and finished tied for 35th. As he walked up 18 last year, Angel Cabrera gathered him in and offered a pep talk.
Garcia said Cabrera put his arm around him and said, "Just keep going, don't worry about it, these things happen. If you keep going the way you're going, you'll be fine. You'll manage to break through one day."
Perhaps. The question remains whether Sergio has the temperament and concentration to win a major. "If you are a little bit off, and you lose a little bit of confidence, it can cost," he acknowledged.
"I guess you can compare it to what happened to Rory on Sunday, very similar to what happened to me," Sergio said. "He made a bad swing on 10. I made it on 9. And then, from them on, everything seemed to snowball."
McIlroy lost a back-nine lead on Sunday a year ago. He returned to dominate and win the U.S. Open in June. He's been in contention in every tournament he's played since last summer. "I wouldn't say it's as easy as it looks, but it's nice that it looks routine," McIlroy said.
Where Garcia appears somewhat awkward and at times unsure, McIlroy seems adjusted and prepared.
On Friday, McIlroy stepped onto that haunting 10th tee box, where everything went famously wrong last year and calmly belted a drive down the right side. Then as he marched down the hill, he casually glanced over to where a year ago he hit a tree and wound up between two cabins so far off the course, CBS barely had a camera angle. Earlier this week he openly joked about the collapse.
Rory may not win this tournament, but few think it'll be because he hasn't gotten over past failures.
With Sergio, there is no expectation of victory. He's never proven himself, never shown he can make a move on all this top talent, all these sharks looking for green.
"I don't know if I'm ready to win," Garcia said. "I'll see. We'll see. I wish I could tell you I'm ready to win, but I really don't know. So I'm just going to give it my best try, and you know, hopefully that will be good."
It'll have to be if he ever wants to fulfill his old immense potential and hold off the next-generation star he once inspired and who has now lapped him.
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- Rory McIlroy