Sergio Garcia endures heckling at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The amphitheater-like setting that greets players as they come to the closing holes at TPC Sawgrass is among the best in golf, especially when the outcome is as riveting as was provided by the Players Championship on Sunday.

But one of the game's best attributes -- proximity to the players and the action -- can also be one of its cruelest when a long day in the sun coupled with alcohol-aided machismo turns ugly.

Sergio Garcia can be his own worst enemy at times, but he didn't deserve the profanity and vitriol he endured for a good bit of the back nine on Sunday and at times during the week of the Players Championship.

That he lost in a playoff to Rickie Fowler was no shame, as Garcia first had the lead on the back nine, fell behind by two shots going into the closing holes, then made two birdies -- including an unlikely 43-footer at the 17th -- to earn his spot in the playoff.

All the while, Garcia looked like a kid who just moved away from his best friend. A good bit of that was undoubtedly due to a sense that had Garcia putted with any proficiency at all for the first three rounds, he would have turned it into a boring Sunday.

But it also had to do with the heckling, which is something the Spaniard withstands more than is widely known.

"Obviously some guys there that don't deserve to be here watching golf,'' Garcia said afterward.

He didn't need to say anything. Anyone who was on the grounds following Garcia and Justin Thomas could see it and hear it. Garcia is the modern-day Colin Montgomerie, the Scotsman who suffered through his share of abuse when on American soil, especially in the Ryder Cup.

It was lousy then and it is lousy now.

Golf isn't a team sport in which it is understood and expected to give grief to the opposing team. And this isn't anything close to the Ryder Cup, in which the players embrace the cheering and booing. Garcia has seen both sides of that, too.

But Sunday he was an individual golfer trying to win one of golf's biggest tournaments. Of course spectators in attendance in north Florida are going to be rooting for the popular Fowler, but at the time Garcia made the turn, he had a two-shot lead and Fowler was five strokes back, barely in the picture.

Garcia was reluctant to talk about it afterward, likely because he knows he is a lightning rod for criticism. At times in his career, he has come off as the "woe is me'' character, none worse than when he lost the 2007 Open Championship in a playoff to Padraig Harrington.

"I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field,'' he said then in the aftermath.

His Ryder Cup antics dating to Brookline in 1999 as a 19-year old European Tour player have always made him a polarizing figure among American golf fans. And so too his success in the event that has seen the U.S. take a beating.

And there was the infamous 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, where Garcia complained that tournament officials would have stopped play for Tiger Woods when conditions became severe. He also caught grief from New York golf fans because he had developed a re-gripping routine that became a punch line.

Two years ago here, Garcia's misguided complaints about Woods during a third-round pairing led to sniping and eventually a racial slur that led to several weeks of angst.

So yes, Garcia has made himself an easy target.

But on Sunday, he wasn't making excuses, nor was he really complaining. To anyone who was out there, however, it was obvious that there was a good deal of mean-spirited chatter directed his way.

"It was probably about three or four times on every hole since the 10th hole," he said. (Garcia's caddie, Glen Murray, said he asked for security on the back nine after the abuse escalated.)

Asked if any of it resulted in him misplaying a shot, Garcia said, "No, no, no. They shouted at the wrong time, [when he was] on top of the ball, so I was able to back away. I wouldn't say that I [misplayed a shot], no."

If anything, Garcia, 35, handled it better than he might have back at another time in his career.

A winner of eight PGA Tour titles, including the 2008 Players Championship in a playoff, and 11 more European Tour victories, Garcia would have won outright had he been able to make anything during the first three rounds.

Before he holed that outrageous 43-footer at the 17th to tie for the lead, he had made just five of 31 putts outside of 10 feet. And he missed 15 putts from 3 to 10 feet for the week, including five from 3 to 5 feet.

Put another way, Garcia was minus-2.005 in strokes gained putting for the tournament, which means he was two strokes above the field average.

And yet he was first in strokes gained tee to green, and tied for third in greens in regulation.

In other words, the man is a tremendous ball striker, and below average putter. And still managed to get to a playoff, tied by one guy (Fowler) who played the final four holes in 5 under and another (Kevin Kisner) who matched him with birdies at the 16th and 17th holes.

"Today I played good," he said. "I putted quite good. But for the rest of the week, I gave away a lot of shots and still almost won this tournament. So I can't be disappointed."

And yet, it is difficult to believe otherwise -- and for reasons other than golf.