Has Sergio Garcia become the people's choice at the U.S. Open?

OAKMONT, Pa. -- There was a time in Sergio Garcia's career when he was so easy to root against.

For much of his 20s and a lot of his 30s, Garcia came across as the game's biggest whiner.

He behaved like a sullen child, and he seemed uninterested in maturing. It was mesmerizing how purely he hit the ball, the way his towering iron shots knifed through the air, but Garcia was equally skilled at throwing tantrums or saying stupid stuff when his game went off the rails. (This is a golfer, if you recall, who once threw his shoe into the stands after his foot slipped, leading to a bad drive; he once spit into the cup after a bad putt.) The impish teenager who briefly stared down Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship -- the guy who won over the world when he leaped in the air and sprinted down the fairway, chasing the approach he'd hit from the base of a tree -- was long forgotten.

If there was a nadir to all this, it was probably Garcia's idiotic comments in 2013 about how he was going to squash a beef with Woods by inviting the 14-time major winner over to his house and serving fried chicken. Woods was rightfully pissed. Garcia quickly apologized, but it felt like the Spaniard didn't truly understand the ugly history associated with the stereotype. As the criticism intensified, he seemed mortified by what he'd done, and he tried to offer a more sincere apology. But for most of us, the damage was done. He had cemented his status as a permanent villain. No one in golf, it's fair to say, made me embrace the concept of schadenfreude quite like Garcia.

I find myself softening, however, as Garcia creeps his way toward 40. I, for one, might enjoy it immensely if Sergio were to put together a Sunday round for the ages and capture his first major title at Oakmont Country Club. Even though he bogeyed his first two holes on the Sunday morning restart of Round 3 at the U.S. Open, he's tied for seventh and will still be in the fourth-to-last pairing in the final round. And he's failed so many times in situations like this, given us so many memorable disappointments, it would simply be more fun to see him flip the script and do something special, especially when assumption is he'll wilt, yet again, under pressure.

Garcia has made mistakes. But he has suffered for them too. To walk the fairways at the U.S. Open with Garcia is to see a man display remarkable patience in the face of dozens of cruel and vulgar taunts. The once-brash and temperamental prodigy is no longer young -- at age 36, he has gray hair creeping into his beard -- but he appears to have found some measure of maturity in recent years. He no longer blames the gods or fate when breaks don't go his way. He puts his head down, politely asks marshals to deal with the unruly, often drunk hecklers, and then hits another iron flush when it's his turn to play -- as he did several times on Saturday.

In some ways, it's been easy to dislike Garcia for so long, because he's almost too human to be a professional athlete. He has never been good at hiding his emotions or masking his jealousies. He once sulked his way through a Ryder Cup because he'd just had his heart broken from being dumped by Greg Norman's daughter. He has admitted that playing in majors often unnerves him -- because he feels lonely out there. He gave fans the middle finger at Bethpage Black during the 2002 U.S. Open when they taunted him for gripping and re-gripping the club too many times. He even gave one of the more brutally honest quotes in sports history at the 2012 Masters, essentially waiving the white flag on his career in frustration.

"I'm not good enough," Garcia said then. "I don't have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place. In any major."

When a reporter offered him an out, asking if that was just the emotion talking, Garcia doubled down and went even further.

"Do you think I lie when I talk?" Garcia answered. "Everything I say, I say it because I feel it. If I didn't mean it, I couldn't stand here and lie like a lot of the guys. If I felt like I could win, I would do it. Unfortunately at the moment, unless I get really lucky in one of the weeks, I can't really play much better than I played this week, and I'm going to finish 13th or 15th. I'm not good enough. I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them. I have no more options. I wasted my options."

At some point, though, Garcia stopped feeling tormented by the fact that he has never won a major. Asked late Saturday night what it would mean to "get the monkey of his back," Garcia responded by cracking jokes.

"The monkey is still coming? On my back? Or my bag?" Garcia said. "No, there's no monkeys. That's nonsense. At the end of the day, the only thing I can do is give myself chances. Play well. If it happens, it happens."

There doesn't need to be a happy ending to his story. Garcia's torment over the years has mostly, if not entirely, been of his own making. But it just might be fun to see him surprise us. It's hard to imagine Sergio Garcia making key putts down the stretch of a major. But for the first time, I just might root for him to do it.