Open: Sergio Garcia hopes to emulate Ballesteros

AFTER 18 failed attempts, including two close calls, Sergio Garcia knows he can’t be fussy about where he’d ideally like to 
become an Open champion. He admits, though, that it would be memorable if it happened at St Andrews, where fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros created one of the event’s iconic celebrations after his triumph in 1984.
Spain's Sergio Garcia on practice day. Picture: SNSSpain's Sergio Garcia on practice day. Picture: SNS
Spain's Sergio Garcia on practice day. Picture: SNS

“To come here and win The Open would be extremely special as it’s St Andrews – the home of golf – and remembering what Seve did here would make it an even more amazing experience,” admitted Garcia, who learned so much from his compatriot before the three-times Open champion passed away just over four years ago. “I didn’t watch it live, but I’ve seen 
replays of Seve in 1984 and it’s great watching him throwing punches this way and that way. It is special. It is just amazing.”

While Garcia has come up short so far in his quest to lift the Claret Jug, he’s entitled to be feeling quietly confident heading into this year’s event that the door he’s knocked loudly at a few times might just finally open. The 35-year-old lost to Padraig Harrington in a play-off at Carnoustie in 2007, then finished runner-up for a second time 12 months ago, to Rory McIlroy at Hoylake.

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“We don’t want to get ahead ourselves because there’s a lot of things we need to do right to have that chance,” he added of being able to follow in Seve’s footsteps by winning the game’s oldest major at the game’s cradle. “The challenge is to give myself a chance, as I did last year when I played well to give myself a possibility of winning.

Seve Ballesteros celebrates his 1984 win. Picture: David Cannon /AllsportSeve Ballesteros celebrates his 1984 win. Picture: David Cannon /Allsport
Seve Ballesteros celebrates his 1984 win. Picture: David Cannon /Allsport

“I’ve always said that this is the best championship we have in golf, no doubt about it. For everything it means and everything it stands for. It would be amazing to win it. Put it this way, if I could stand here and say I could only win one tournament for the rest of my life, I would obviously choose The Open. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be one at St Andrews - I’d take a win at any of the venues.

“I’ve always loved coming to the UK and playing British Boys, British Youths and British Amateur on these type of courses in front of these crowds. I think I was 13 when I first played in the British Boys and I’ve always felt comfortable on these courses.”

In his first Open on the Old Course, Garcia finished joint-36th in 2000 – the year after he’d joined forces with Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez. He then tied for fifth in 2005 before giving another good account of himself five years ago in sharing 14th spot.

“I first played St Andrews in 1999,” recalled Garcia, who was speaking at a TaylorMade event in the build-up to the 144th Open. “I never played it as an amateur. I remember coming with the Spanish national team, but we just walked around some of the holes. The first time I played it was in the 1999 Dunhill Cup when we won it – that was good fun.

“It is amazing when you stand on the first tee. It is nice that it is so wide (laughing). It makes it a little bit easier. It’s great to stand there with the R&A clubhouse behind and the 17th hole sitting at the back left in front of you and the creek winding its way across the first and 18th fairways. It is very, very special. I also love the fact it starts and finishes in the town.

“We play St Andrews every five years and that makes it more special because you never know when it is going to be your last Open here.

“You don’t know if your game is going to be good enough to get you back five years later. You don’t know if your health is going to be good enough. Every time you come here, you want to suck it all in, just in case.”

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Mentally and emotionally, Garcia is in a much better state than he was coming here in 2010. Then, he’d just split up from his girlfriend, Greg Norman’s daughter Morgan-Leigh, and, as a consequence, also lost his passion for golf for a spell.

“2010 was tough for me mentally,” he admitted. “But the one tournament I wanted to be at that year was The Open. Fortunately, I think that we all learn from our experiences in our life.

“I’ve had some great moments in my life, but obviously there have been some bad ones, too. It’s about learning to be both a better golfer and a better person.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I need to be happier more than anyone else to play well. Anyone needs to be happy doing what they love. If you are not, you won’t do as well as you could.

“I’m always passionate about anything I do, not just golf. I’m the same when I’m playing football, tennis or whatever.

“I know that way I’m going to do the best I can. I started getting my passion and enthusiasm back towards the end of 2010. The Ryder Cup was great. It was nice to feel the warmth of the players and people at Celtic Manor.”

That warmth towards him will also be there this week – a nice change from the stick he receives far too often from spectators on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I’ve always been very thankful for the way the British crowds have treated me – they have always been amazing,” said Garcia, who lost in a play-off to new Scottish Open champion Rickie Fowler in the Players’ Championship in May. “Even before I turned pro as a British Boys and British Amateur champion, they have always encouraged me. They’ve always carried me in the palm of their hand. I don’t know what I did, but I’m glad I did it and that’s one of the reasons why I love The Open so much.”

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While the arrival on the scene of the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth has made it more difficult for him to land that elusive first major, Garcia spoke glowingly about the two young guns currently battling it out at the top of the world rankings. “For me, as someone who loves golf, it is great to see guys like Rory and Jordan on top of the game – it makes me feel really proud,” he said. “Proud to see two young guys who play the game really well but also two genuine good people. They show what the game is all about and also have respect for it.

“They really do bring a lot to the game and I think the sport is in a great place because of that. Personally, I’ve just got to keep trying hard and make it harder for those two guys to win as often as they have been over the past year.

“In the back of my mind, I do believe I’m going to win this event at some point. But nothing is for sure. I can have an accident tomorrow and never play in another Open. I really feel as though I have an Open win in me based on the history I have with this event and things I’ve been able to achieve in the past on this type of course. But I don’t have a crystal ball.”