In his return Tuesday to Bethpage Black, Sergio Garcia hit nothing but grace notes.
On the course, he did the walk-and-sign for autograph seekers between holes, smiling when they shouted encouragement in Spanish, even if it was tinged with a Brooklyn accent. In his media interview, Garcia praised New York crowds for their passion and made note of his success in the area, finishing fourth in the 2002 Open and winning twice in the old Buick Classic at Westchester Country Club.
If Garcia is to challenge for his first major title in the U.S. Open this week, it's important to get the Bethpage crowd back on his side. Seven years ago, he lost the fans to winner Tiger Woods and runnerup Phil Mickelson, and that might have affected his play when he shot 74 while playing head-to-head with Woods in the last group on Sunday.
New Yorkers appreciate Garcia's emotional flair, but they turned on him in 2002.
It began in the second round when hecklers in the bleachers at No. 17 counted Garcia's pre-shot waggles before hitting his approach to the 16th green, prompting Garcia to flip them off with a universal gesture. In the press tent, he complained about playing in the rain and charged the USGA would have halted play if Woods had been on the course. From the third round on, the fans jeered him unmercifully as a whiner.
But Garcia was upbeat Tuesday when asked about the Bethpage crowds, saying, "I'm really looking forward to it. We know that New York and New Yorkers are very passionate. The only thing I can say is I've been very fortunate to do very well in this area. I love New York. I love the people around here. I actually had a decent chance at winning the championship [in 2002]. So, I'm looking forward to doing the same."
The nervous tic that caused Garcia to repeatedly re-grip the club before starting his backswing in that tournament is long gone. In fact, he nearly eliminated it by the British Open a month later.
"It was just a comfort thing more than anything," Garcia said Tuesday. "As soon as I had two or three weeks off, just before the British Open, I was able to fix it."
Since then, Garcia has won the 2008 Players Championship, the so-called "fifth major," and he lipped out a putt on the 72nd hole of the 2007 British Open before losing a playoff to Padraig Harrington. His play has slipped this year, in part, because of an emotional breakup with former girlfriend Morgan-Leigh Norman, daughter of fellow pro Greg Norman.
Garcia referred indirectly to that situation while addressing his recent slump, saying, "The reasons why I got there were different ones. A couple of personal things happened, and that didn't help." But he added that he is "looking forward to getting back on the horse and back to where my game should be."
If his emotions are in check, Garcia's length off the tee should put him among the top contenders to win at Bethpage.
"If I'm hitting the ball well, it could be a good setup," Garcia said. "I've always said that the U.S. Open usually sets up good for me when I'm playing well because of my ability with the ball striking. I guess we'll see how I feel."