Scandal Is Forever a Part of Sergio Garcia’s Legacy
The enduring image of Sergio Garcia’s career should be one of pure joy. After 17 years of major championship anguish—of heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss, of lip-outs at the worst possible times, of a particularly self-deprecating acceptance of defeat—Garcia finally got his. It was glorious. After he holed a 12-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole to win the 2017 Masters, the emotion overpowered his posture. He crouched. He fist pumped. He bear-hugged his caddie. He could not stop smiling. He paraded around the final green, overcome by a strong cocktail of relief and disbelief and sheer ecstasy.
When all is said and done, that should be how we remember Sergio Garcia. Unfortunately, his continued propensity to act like a petulant child keeps complicating his legacy. And it’s no one’s fault but his.
Garcia’s latest outburst in a long series of puzzling behaviors came in the final round of the Saudi International, a tournament already steeped in controversy. (That’s what happens when you host an event in a country that murders journalists). He was disqualified for “serious misconduct” after he deliberately damaged multiple greens in frustration. Multiple players from multiple groups complained to tournament officials, who mobilized quickly to determine that Garcia was the culprit and subsequently booted him from the event. Somehow no videos of his green vandalism have surfaced, but one showing him going to work on a bunker earlier in the week did make the rounds.
On an island, that’s not unprecedented or flagrantly awful. Players frequently take a swipe at the sand after an unsatisfactory play, and it’s important that we remember how much money they’re playing for. But it’s not on an island. We can’t ignore context—that the very next day he would purposely damage the golf course—when judging his actions. Clearly, Garcia was in quite the mood all week despite the fact that he reportedly received up to $500,000 simply to play in the event, and he felt taking it out on the physical golf course was an appropriate manifestation of his discontent.
First, to address this latest controversy: deliberately damaging the golf course is about as bad as it gets. It’s disrespectful to the rest of the field, which has to putt on the same greens Garcia messed with. It’s disrespectful to the greens keeper and grounds crew, who spend hours preparing the course as best they can. And, at risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, it’s disrespectful to the spirit of the sport, which emphasizes honor and integrity and a healthy dose of stoicism. When I was about 10 years old, I once dragged my putter on the green after missing a short putt and destroyed some grass in the process. My father promptly drove me off the course, straight to the car, where he lectured me on our ride home. It’s a line you simply don’t cross in a casual round, let alone a professional tournament. Any golfer will tell you this.
The worst part about this whole thing is that it’s far from the first time Sergio has engaged in this sort of BS. His most egregious misstep was a racist comment about Tiger Woods, which he made in 2013 . When asked whether he’d invite Tiger to dinner, he replied: “We’ll have him ‘round every night. We’ll serve fried chicken.” In 2007, he spit in a cup after missing a putt, which is just plain disgusting. On the 15th hole at last year’s Masters, while defending his sole major victory, he stubbornly hit five balls in the water en route to an octuple-bogey 13. He easily could have taken his medicine, played safely long, accepted defeat and escaped with a respectable score. Instead, he completely lost his cool and acted like a child, Tin Cup-style.
Acting like a child has been a pattern for Sergio. One would think that he’d be past this, now that he’s married, a father and 11 months from turning 40. One would be wrong. It’s his own doing, and it’s deeply unfortunate, but all the unbecoming behavior is a huge part of the Sergio Garcia legacy. He’s a Hall of Fame player and, by all accounts, very well liked by his European peers. But scandals stick to reputations. The more scandals, the more they stick.
Rickie stays the course for win No. 5
Rickie Fowler also had quite a frustrating Sunday, but he handled it decidedly differently. Fowler entered the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open with a four-shot lead before shooting a birdie-less, two-over 37 on the opening nine. Things then went from bad to bizarre on the 11th hole, where Fowler made one of the more unusual triple-bogeys you’ll ever see.
Rickie was just in front of the par-4 green in two when he badly misplayed a pitch shot, sending his ball through the green into a water hazard behind the putting surface. From there he opted to take a drop on an upslope just above the water. His ball came to rest, but while he was up by the green preparing for what would be his fourth shot, the ball, ostensibly pushed into motion by a raindrop, rolled back into the water. Because the ball had come to rest and was technically in play, he was penalized once again despite not even addressing the ball. He would eventually hole a nice putt for a triple-bogey 7, and if anyone had reason to vandalize a golf course on Sunday, it was Fowler right then and there. He looked on his way to squandering yet another final-round lead and yet another Waste Management Phoenix Open, as he shot a two-over 73 to blow the 54-hole lead in the same event last year.
What did Fowler do? Did he curse or blame the course or his caddy or the rules or anything else? Nope. In the starkest contrast to Garcia’s outbursts just hours earlier, Fowler kept his head, continued plugging away and stayed patient. Two hours later, after gutsy birdies on 15 and 17 and a nice par save on 18, he left TPC Scottsdale with his fifth PGA Tour victory.
Sunday’s performance won’t do Rickie’s reputation as a suboptimal closer any favors—it was just his second win in seven tries with the 54-hole lead, and he’s remarkably shot over par in each of those seven rounds—but as the late, great Al Davis said: Just win, baby. Would Fowler have loved a two-under round and a stress-free Sunday stroll? Surely. Still, they all count the same, and this was exactly what Fowler needed. Now 30 years old, he hadn’t won in nearly two years despite giving himself opportunity after opportunity after opportunity in the sport’s biggest events. He won’t truly get the proverbial monkey off his back until he wins a major, but let’s recall that Phil Mickelson didn’t win the first of his five majors until he was 33. Fowler’s got plenty of time to develop that killer instinct, and this will only reinvigorate him with Augusta lurking around the corner.
Like other sports, golf’s rules need room for interpretation
The USGA and R&A’s motivations for changing the rules of golf were earnest in nature: speed up play by simplifying it all. In an ironic if not predictable development, the early results have been confusion and controversy.
Last week, I wrote about the European Tour’s apt handling of the Haotong Li penalty, when the Chinese player was docked two strokes for having his caddy stand behind him on the 72nd hole (the penalty dropped him from T3 to outside the top 10 and cost him roughly $100,000). This week, Denny McCarthy was penalized under the same new rule:
Rule 10.2b(4) does not allow a player to have his or her caddie deliberately stand behind him or her when the player begins taking a stance because aiming at the intended target is one of the challenges the player must overcome along.”
If it was clear that Li wasn’t having his caddy line him up, it was wildly, abundantly, ridiculously clear that McCarthy wasn’t having his looper beam him up. He hadn’t even addressed the ball, in fact. McCarthy was taking practice swings before a 70-yard shot while the caddy stood behind him. The caddie moved well before McCarthy, you know, actually approached the ball:
After a number of players rushed to McCarthy’s defense—including Justin Thomas, who was almost but not penalized under that same rule on the same day—the USGA and R&A issued statements saying McCarthy’s penalty had been rescinded and that they’d continue discussing how the rule should be implemented.
The problem with this (and other) golf rules is a lack of room for human judgment. Anyone with functioning eyes could see that neither Li nor McCarthy were willfully breaking the rules. As such, neither should have been penalized. On the flip side, everyone could see that Phil Mickelson was purposefully cheating when he putted a moving ball at the U.S. Open. As such, he should have been disqualified. But the rules are stiff, and Li/McCarthy’s actions were unfortunate enough to trigger a penalty whereas Mickelson’s somehow wasn’t.
There’s a pretty simple solution here: on non black-and-white calls (such as if a player touched a ball or whether a ball is in or out of bounds), the PGA Tour and European Tours should leave the call up to referees. Golf actually lends itself quite well to judgment calls; unlike team sports, there is no pressure to make a split-second decision. Referees would have the luxury of time and replay, leaving ample room for a careful, considered ruling. Simply put, sometimes actions don’t fit neatly into a rulebook description. Those times deserve—nay, require—a human decision.
• The 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open did not disappoint, yet again. It never disappoints. Yes, fans were rowdy and drunk and boisterous and whatever you want to call them, but it never teetered into disrespectful. I can’t fathom how anyone thinks an event that drives this kind of interest—people legitimately running to get a spot before the sun comes up—is anything but awesome for the sport.
• The golf world fell in love this week with Oklahoma State sophomore Matthew Wolff, who made the cut in his first PGA Tour event. The world’s No. 4 amateur has one of the more unique (and powerful) swings you’ll ever see and a confidence that stops just short of cockiness (not that there’s anything wrong with being cocky, of course). Check out his homemade motion:
My take: this guy is going to win a lot of tournaments. And don’t try that at home.
• Have to toot my own horn a bit here—there was no preview column for the WMPO, but I identified Rickie Fowler as worthy of a wager at 18-1. That’s now the second time in four events that we’ve struck gold, after Matt Kuchar delivered in Hawaii at 40-1.
• If you missed it, this video of Special Olympics golfer Amy Bockerstette making par at 16 is the best thing you’ll see all week.
• Apparently Johnny Miller slugs bottles of Cheese Whiz on a regular basis. If you need to throw up, I fully understand.
• Reminder that Ho-sung Choi will make his PGA Tour debut this week at Pebble Beach. He came to America (for the first time!) early to drink in some Hollywood. How do you not love this guy?!
• In honor of black history month and in a nod to his mixed-race background, Cameron Champ wore one black shoe and one white shoe this week. An understated but powerful tribute. The best kind.
• Apparently DJ went driver-8 iron into the 607-yard finishing hole in Saudi Arabia. That’s symbolic of the distance explosion that will force golf’s governing bodies to make a really difficult decision. My feature from the pages of SI on this very subject will appear online on Wednesday.