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Garcia rides hot streak into 11th Masters

Sunday, April 05, 2009

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Even Sergio Garcia finds it hard to believe that a decade has passed since his Masters Tournament debut.

Sergio Garcia was motivated in 2008 by Camilo Villegas, who told him, "Listen, man, you're better than you are playing." Garcia's reply: winning the Players Championship. (Chris Thelen/Staff)

And what a debut it was in 1999. Garcia, then 19, was the low amateur when fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal won his second green jacket.

Later that year, Garcia finished second to Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship.

"Fortunately, I don't feel old, but it has been a long time," he said. "The funny thing is it's gone by really quickly. It doesn't feel like it's been 10 years. It feels like three or four years. When you're doing something you love, time just flies. I've enjoyed every minute of it."

After his auspicious start in the Masters (he tied for 38th place as an amateur), Garcia has had only two top-10 finishes at Augusta National Golf Club. He was eighth in 2002 and tied for fourth in 2004, closing that tournament with 6-under-par 66.

That is the last under-par round at the course for Garcia. He has missed the cut in three of the past four years, including the past two. Last year, he shot 76-72 and missed playing on the weekend by a shot. In 2007, he missed the cut by two shots.

Garcia is still trying to win a major (he's 0 for 41). He has played better in the other three: a runner-up in both the British Open (2007), and PGA Championship (1999, 2008) and tied for third in the U.S. Open (2005).

"I've just done better in the other three than I've done at Augusta," Garcia said. "I don't know, I just haven't done well there. I've had a couple of good finishes. But consistency-wise, I've done better in the other ones. I don't know; I guess it's just one of those things.

"I do like the place," he said of Augusta National. "It's a really tough course, and it's gotten really, really difficult throughout the years. Unfortunately, I haven't performed the way I would like at the Masters, but hopefully, I'll be able to change that."

All signs point to that happening this year. Garcia has played so well since winning the Players Championship last May that he has jumped into the top three in the Official World Golf Ranking, including a stint at No. 2. Last year at this time, he was ranked 15th.

"Moving to No. 2 in the world, it's a great excitement for me," Garcia said.

Camilo Villegas was asked if he thought his friend has underachieved because he hasn't won a major championship.

"I wouldn't say that," Villegas said. "I mean, how old is Serg, 29? He will win a major.

"He's No. 2 in the world," Villegas said of Garcia's ranking earlier this year. "How can you underachieve being No. 2 in the world? No. 2 in the world; I'll take it any day."

Garcia was winless since 2005 before taking the Players Championship last year. A pep talk from Villegas the week before the Players might have had something to do with that.

"We were chatting, and I just kind of gave him a little kick in the butt, telling him, 'Listen, man, you're better than you are playing,' as a friend. He kind of looked at me and said, 'You know what, you're right,' and he goes and wins the Players (and two other later events). So he looks at me now, and he goes: 'You know what, you're right about that. I am good, and I need to keep working and continue to be good.' "

Garcia ended the 2008 season on a hot streak, losing a playoff to Villegas in the Tour Championship in September, then winning two European Tour events (the Castello Masters in October and the HSBC Champions in November).

"Gamewise, it was the best year of my career," Garcia said. "It wasn't the year I won the most events, but I did have the chance of winning a lot of tournaments."

Indeed, Garcia also had one runner-up finish on the European Tour and two more on the PGA Tour, where he won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.12), becoming the first European to do that since 1937.

"If you keep posting good solid scores, the chances to win come around," Garcia said. "That's what Tiger does really well. That's what we all try to achieve."

Putting has been an issue for Garcia the past few years. He seemed to have found the pace on the Augusta National greens in 2007, averaging 26 putts in the first two rounds before missing the cut. In 2008, the problems were back; he had 63 putts for the two rounds he played.

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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