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Garcia inherits stigma


Spain's Sergio Garcia replaces Phil Mickelson as the best player to have never won a major tournament.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Spain's Sergio Garcia replaces Phil Mickelson as the best player to have never won a major tournament. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Doug Ferguson Associated Press

PINEHURST, N.C. – Not long after Phil Mickelson won the Masters last year, a search was launched to find his replacement as the “best player to have never won a major.”

Sergio Garcia’s name was on just about every list.

Given his age, some questioned whether it belonged.

Garcia is 25, and it only seems like he has been around forever. It was six years ago at Medinah when the freckle-faced Spaniard closed his eyes and gouged a 6-iron from the base of a tree, then chased its flight up the 16th fairway as he gave Tiger Woods a fearless fight at the PGA Championship.

Still, the best players without a major had something in common – undeniable talent, prominent PGA Tour victories and their share of heartache in the Grand Slam events.

Considering what he has done in his short time on tour, Garcia looks like the perfect fit.

Garcia passed a minor benchmark Sunday when he captured the Booz Allen Classic at fabled Congressional by closing with a 65 to beat the likes of Davis Love III and Ernie Els.

It was his sixth PGA Tour victory – one more than Mickelson when he was that age.

Mickelson, so gifted that he won on tour while he was still in college, had three top 10s in the majors at this stage, and his only serious chance at winning was the ‘95 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he tied for fourth.

Garcia already has had eight top 10s in the majors. Along with finishing one shot behind Woods in the ‘99 PGA Championship, he played with Woods in the final group at the ‘02 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, and he twice went into the final round of the British Open only two shots off the lead.

And just like Mickelson, he’s already hearing the question.

“Sometimes I get into the media center and they’re like, ‘Oh, you haven’t won a major yet’ and stuff,” Garcia said Tuesday. “I know. And I’ve always said I would love to, and I’ve had my chances. But it’s not something that bothers me that much at the moment. I know that I still have a lot of chances. Fortunately, I’m only 25.”

There is a friendly rivalry between Garcia and 24-year-old Adam Scott of Australia, widely considered the best young players in golf because of their ranking (Garcia is No. 6, Scott No. 7) and their quality wins.

Garcia has won on classic courses at Colonial, Westchester and Congressional, and against quality fields at the Mercedes Championships and Byron Nelson Championship.

Scott has done most of his damage on the TPC network – Avenel (Booz Allen Classic), Boston (Deustche Bank) and Sawgrass, where last year at 23 he became the youngest winner of The Players Championship. Scott, however, has never seriously contended at the majors.

Garcia was good from the time he turned pro, tying for third in his PGA Tour debut as a professional at the ‘99 Byron Nelson, making the Ryder Cup later that year and winning 3 1/2 as the youngest player in Ryder Cup history.

But while he said not winning a major is not getting under his skin, he concedes that he has been pressing.

“The last couple of years, I maybe tried a bit too hard, putting so much pressure and expecting to do well and have a chance of winning,” he said. “I know if I play my own game, I’m going to have a chance, because I’ve showed it. I’ve showed that I’ve got good enough game to be out there and have a chance of winning majors.”

He has mixed memories of playing in North Carolina.

His putting woes cost him in May at the Wachovia Championship, where he matched a PGA Tour record by losing a six-shot lead in the final round, closing with a 72 to fall into a playoff with Jim Furyk and eventual winner Vijay Singh.

“That was the highest I could shoot if you look at the way I played,” Garcia said. “I don’t think you guys gave enough credit to Vijay and Jim. That course was not playing easy.”

His first trip to North Carolina came seven years ago. An 18-year-old amateur, he received a sponsor’s exemption to a Nationwide Tour event in Greensboro and finished third.

“I was really young,” he said, “and I was just enjoying the moment.”

He is still young, still smiling and still waiting for his week to win a major. Mickelson had loads of chances when he was only 25, and had to wait nine more years before he cashed in. Tom Kite was 42 when he won his major.

Garcia is in no hurry.

That label as the best player to have never won a major?

“I really take it as a compliment,” he said. “If you’re telling me the best player never to have a won major, it means they consider me a good player. I know what I can do. I’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

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