Sergio lets another win slip away

Sergio Garcia couldn't keep up with Nick Watney, choking away another win at Westchester. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Sergio Garcia did not blame it on the ghosts this time, or the rain, or the poor guys raking the bunkers, or even the New Yorkers who follow the same etiquette on a golf course that they follow at a backed-up toll booth.

That's an improvement, of course, because long before Garcia blew a two-shot lead in the final round of The Barclays on Sunday, he had a long history of blaming everyone but the man in his bathroom mirror. Back in 2000, the first time he had a chance to win this tournament (then known as the Buick at Westchester), Garcia was carrying a three-shot Sunday lead to the 11th tee when an overheated fan barked, "Don't choke, Sergio. Don't choke."

Garcia told the fan that he shouldn't worry about it, that he liked his position just fine, before he snap-hooked his drive into the trees and choked away what would've been his first victory on tour.

"With the good round I was having," Garcia would say, "you can't be screaming in my ear stupid things like some people did."

Sure, Garcia heard a few things from the Bethpage Black gallery he wished he hadn't, and he did say a quick-fingered fan with a camera contributed to his damaging bogey on the 10th hole. But all in all, Garcia swore he enjoyed the same Bethpage crowd that inspired his middle-fingered salute in 2002, back when U.S. Open fans mocked his constant waggling and mimicked the sounds of a baby crying for a pacifier.

"I know the New York crowds are rowdy," Garcia said Sunday, "but I like them. I feel like I have a good connection with them."

That was Garcia's good news. The bad news?

Nick Watney's surprise victory here represented another reminder that Garcia's career is defined by what he has lost and not by what he has won.

Funny how that has worked out. At 32, Garcia has earned tens upon tens of millions on the course and off. He's a global celebrity with a rock star's collection of beautiful women in his past, Martina Hingis included. He's a Ryder Cup killer, a winner of 20 events on the American, European and Asian tours, and a contender who has scored a top-five finish in all four majors.

It's a life most men would die for, and yet Garcia is forever questioned about a worldly possession he doesn't have -- a Grand Slam title.

Rory McIlroy has two at age 23. Phil Mickelson, golf's last big figure haunted by an oh-fer at the majors, has four to take into the twilight of his career.

Garcia nearly had the 2007 British Open and 2008 PGA Championship, both stolen by Padraig Harrington. All these years later, Sergio's signature shot remains one he took with his eyes closed, from behind a tree, as a teenager at a PGA he didn't win in 1999. He ran after that ball, did a flying scissor-kick as it headed for the green, and a star was born right then and there.

Garcia lost that major to Tiger Woods, who no longer considers the Spaniard a credible rival. Sergio wasn't about to change that with a victory at the Barclays, the first round of a FedEx Cup playoff system that's too confusing for the casual fan.

But on a day when Woods shot 5-over 76 and looked like a 20-handicapper who shouldn't have ignored Bethpage Black's posted warning, the one recommending the course "only for highly skilled golfers," Garcia had a chance to make a profound statement about his present and near future.

He'd just won the Wyndham with a caddie off the street (Garcia had divorced his regular caddie, Glen Murray), and he was feeling good about his two-peat chances with a buddy, Wayne Richardson, on his bag. Sergio was walking off his own yardages, choosing his own clubs, and reading his own putts. He was back to being a feel player, back to being that kid behind the tree at Medinah.

Garcia wasn't looking or sounding anything like that lost soul who turned up at the Masters in April, assuring the Spanish media that he was "not good enough" to win a major. Ever.

"In 13 years," he said then, "I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place."

Maybe another first-place finish at The Barclays would've changed his tune next spring. Garcia had won this event in 2001 and 2004 on the same Westchester course where the heckler had talked him into an earlier choke, but this one would've been different.

This one would've pumped fresh air into the idea that an aging Garcia still had time to change his game, his luck and his legacy.

He had two top-10s at the Bethpage Opens in 2002 and 2009, and so he was confident enough on this course to survive Saturday's Shinnecock-like greens and to sink a long birdie putt on the sixth hole Sunday to regain his two-shot lead. Sergio pumped his right fist, engaged in a hearty handshake with Richardson, and projected a vibe of certainty.

But Watney didn't wilt, not even close, answering with three birdies over the next four holes while Garcia broke down. "I hit a couple of bad shots at the wrong moments," he said.

"I just didn't feel as good as I did the last three days or the last week, and I didn't feel quite as comfortable. … Today I was a little bit jumpy. I could feel that I wasn't quite there. So that doesn't mean that I didn't try as hard as I could. At the end of the day, there can only be one winner, and Nick obviously deserved the win more than I did."

On the 17th tee, down two strokes, Garcia was taking forever to gauge the wind when a couple of fans shouted at him to hurry up and hit. "I'm like, 'Don't worry, I'm going to hit it. I'm just taking my time,'" Sergio recalled, and a good time was had by all.

"Even the cheering on 18 after I finished," he said, "they knew I didn't have my best day and they felt for me and they gave me a nice cheer to make me feel better. That was great to see."

So was this new and improved Sergio, who has had excuses at the ready for almost every big-game failure. A slow bunker raker supposedly cost him a British Open. Mud balls in the fairway supposedly derailed him at the Masters. USGA officials supposedly forced him to play in rain they would've never forced on Tiger and cost him the '02 Open at Bethpage.

It was always something with Sergio. "I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field," he famously said once.

Sunday, Garcia wasn't blaming unseen gremlins and pins that knock his dead-eye approaches 20 feet away while leaving Tiger's tucked tight against the cup.

Garcia was blaming Garcia, an encouraging sign. But the defeat was bigger than the responsibility accepted after the fact.

Sergio had a fairly big tournament in his gifted hands and couldn't close. The man who has everything remains a golfer best known for the things he lets slip away.