Garcia still searching for long-awaited first major

TULSA, Okla. -- Suffering through major championship heartbreak does not guarantee your day will come. Ask Greg Norman. Being anointed the game's best without such a coveted title does not mean you will eventually get your own trophy. Ask Colin Montgomerie.

And the longer the pursuit lingers -- the more chances you have to think about previous failures while constantly being peppered with inquiries -- the more difficult the task becomes.

That is the situation Sergio Garcia finds himself in today on the eve of another major championship.

It has been eight years since he burst upon the scene, scissors kicking his way down the 16th fairway at Medinah to follow the path of a miracle shot he had hit from behind a tree. Garcia was 19 then, a kid with game and guile.

He gave Tiger Woods a scare at a time when the game's No. 1 player was nowhere near the confident champion he is today. Woods would go on to win his second major, but only by one stroke over the newly minted pro from Spain who appeared destined to challenge him for a decade or more.

Garcia, considered a world-class player ever since, didn't finish second in a major again until last month's British Open. He is 27 now and battle scarred. He's already switched to a belly putter, such has been his frustrations on the greens.

So, the question is: How will he bounce back from that tough defeat at Carnoustie, where he had a three-stroke lead heading into the final round, narrowly missed a par putt on the 18th green, shot 2-over 73, then lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington?

"I was the only one who had the winning putt in regulation," Garcia said Wednesday at Southern Hills Country Club, where the 89th PGA Championship begins Thursday. "To me, that means a lot. I think, overall, it was a great experience to be up in the lead all week long. I think I learned a lot from it. I had a winning putt. … I hit a great putt. Unfortunately, it didn't go in."

Seventeen days offered some time for reflection, not all of it good. Garcia admitted last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that he could have used more time off. He was understandably down, still wondering how the putt on the 72nd hole didn't drop into the cup.

The challenge now is to move on from the disappointment.

Garcia, who is ranked eighth in the world and has six PGA Tour victories along with another 10 worldwide, can take some consolation from a player like Phil Mickelson, who went more than 10 years as a pro before winning his first major.

"I believed, just as Sergio believes, it's just a matter of time," said Mickelson, who has gone on to win three majors. "He's too good a player for it not to happen. I certainly felt that way. It was just a matter of time. It took more time than I had hoped.

"The hardest thing about it was coming in here [to media interviews]. I always believed and never really wondered if I would ever win one. I knew I would, I just didn't know when. I think he feels the same way. But answering questions about it can be difficult."

Especially when you answer them by making excuses. Mickelson never did that. He typically handled his near misses with class, paying tribute to the winner while acknowledging his own shortcomings.

That certainly wasn't the case with Garcia after his playoff loss to Harrington. He cited the slow raking of a bunker on the 18th green in regulation for contributing to his demise. He lamented the putt on the final green that did not fall. He suggested a higher being was at work for all of his bad breaks.

He generally came off as a sore loser, someone unwilling to acknowledge his own shortcomings -- three front-nine bogeys where he missed a green and failed to get up and down were hardly the result of bad luck.

"I was emotional," Garcia said at the PGA on Wednesday. "I opened myself up to [the media] and I said what I felt. That's pretty much it. I didn't want to take anything out of Padraig winning the Open. I felt like I played well enough to win it and unfortunately it didn't happen. Definitely, if a couple of breaks would have gone my way, it would have been a different story. But that's pretty much it."

It is true that Garcia had his share of misfortune. It was cruel that his par putt on the 18th green did not drop, one that would have meant the Claret Jug at that instant. And it was brutal to see his approach to the par-3 16th -- the second playoff hole -- hit the pin, and bounce 20 feet away.

But that's golf, and dealing with the aftermath is what frames a champion.

"If you get close and don't make it, there's always the danger that you're never going to make it," said Dr. Richard Coop, a noted sports psychologist. "He has to find a source to be strong enough mentally or have a strong enough internal belief system and the ability to hold that belief system."

Tom Lehman remembers telling Garcia upon winning the 1996 British Open that the Spaniard would be hoisting his share of Claret Jugs. Garcia was the low amateur that year, and Lehman was duly impressed.

More than a decade later, he believes it is imperative to deal with the disappointment in a dignified manner.

"I had some disappointments in majors," Lehman said. "But I knew I was moving closer, that it was only a matter of time, that one of these days was going to be my day. Did I say that to the media? No. But I told my wife. Does Sergio feel like he's running up against a wall that's too high to climb? In his quietest moments, only he knows."

Garcia knows there were a lot of positives to take from Carnoustie. He finally found a putter that gave him confidence on the greens. He led the tournament for most of four days. It was certainly not a meltdown that cost him that championship. And there is no shame in bogeying the final hole at Carnoustie.

All of those lessons will come in handy the next time there is an opportunity. But as other great golfers have proved, getting one is not assured.

"The guy who finishes second is always the first loser, so it's hard sometimes," Garcia said. "But you've got to move on, take the positives out of it. I just hope that I have the winning putt here again. At least if I'm in that position, I'll be pretty happy with it."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.