Muirfield can again be springboard to launch career of the next Garcia

HE had won his club championship at the age of 12 and made the cut in a European Tour event as a 16-year-old. But the triumph that convinced Sergio Garcia he was good enough to try his luck in the professional ranks came a little later in his career at Muirfield.

Twelve years ago, the Spaniard won the Amateur Championship over the East Lothian links and the event's return there next week for the first time since that victory will bring back some happy memories for a man who used his win in the R&A's blue riband event as a springboard to become one of Europe's leading performers on the world stage.

"Like every Amateur Championship, I remember it was a hard week, but it was wonderful (for me]," said Garcia, who succeeded Scotland's Craig Watson as champion after beating Welshman Craig Williams by 7 and 6 in the 36-hole final. "The weather wasn't too bad. It was a little beefy at times, but it was pretty good overall throughout the week.

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"I had some great matches. I remember that fortunately I played nicely and only one match went down the stretch, with Mark Hilton. We went to 22 or 23 holes or something like that. It was a great week and an amazing course to play. Muirfield is definitely one of my favourite links courses. St Andrews, Carnoustie and Muirfield are all top class. I always really enjoy coming back to those three in particular."

Garcia's win at the Gullane venue, where the entry on that occasion was a record 537 and included Justin Rose, another teenage prodigy at the time, as well as Geoff Ogilvy and Trevor Immelman, gave him the opportunity to become the first Amateur champion to finish low amateur in The Masters the following April and, soon after returning from Augusta National, he made the switch to the paid ranks.

Asked if he felt that amateurs sometimes made that move a little bit early in their career, the 30-year-old said: "At the end of the day, only the player knows when it's the right time, and you make a decision. Hopefully it's the right one. I can only speak for myself. When I made the move to turn pro, it was mainly because there weren't many things that I could really win as an amateur anymore.

"I felt strongly that, if I kept playing amateur golf for three or four more years, it was only going to bring my game backwards. I needed to go to the next level, to become a better golfer and that's why I turned pro when I was 19."

Matteo Manassero, the Italian who won the Amateur Championship at Formby 12 months ago, recently made the switch at 17. "He'll be fine," insisted Garcia. "I had the pleasure of playing with him at The Open last year. He's a great golfer, and very young. He's going to develop into an even better one as he grows up, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he does throughout the year."

While Garcia himself may be suffering a lull at present, he's chalked up nearly 20 professional victories worldwide over the past decade or so and says his win in the Amateur Championship, the second Spaniard to lift the title after Jose Maria Olazabal's success at Formby in 1984, was an important stepping stone along the way.

"It was huge. It was a really big event. I had the pleasure of winning the (British] Boys, too, before that. Winning a championship like the Amateur Championship that you play both stroke play for the first couple of days and then match play – it's huge. It gives you a very big boost of confidence. It gives you the opportunity of playing The Open, The Masters, and not many amateurs have the chance of doing that. You gain unbelievable experience there, so it was huge for me.

"For me to experience it when I was 16, and then experience it again when I was 18 and 19, it was something amazing. Something I will remember for my whole life, and I learned a lot from it. We played a lot with pros as an amateur but it's the big, big tournaments where you learn the most and that was something unbelievable," he reflected.

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As a cosmopolitan field assembles in East Lothian bidding to emulate Garcia's feat at Muirfield, the 1998 champion insists the winner can just as easily be the player who qualifies for the match-play phase in 64th spot as opposed to the top seed after the two qualifying rounds, being played on at Muirfield and North Berwick on Monday and Tuesday.

"You have to be patient," he said. "It's a really long event. Just try to get yourself into the match play. It doesn't really matter if you've won the stroke play or not (Garcia finished third behind Hilton and Ogilvy] because then, when match play comes around, anything can happen. Just be patient on the first two days."