Sergio Garcia had not played much competitive golf in the last few months before this week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He appeared at just three events at the back end of 2016 in the aftermath of the Ryder Cup, finishing T19 at the CIMB Classic and T9 at the WGC HSBC Champions in October, followed by a T19 at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November. Not spectacular results, but nonetheless almost $400k earned somewhat effortlessly in the process. Sergio could have been forgiven for delivering another casual, almost nonchalant top twenty finish here in Dubai again at the Emirates Golf Club in his first appearance of 2017, but rather than ease himself into the new year, the brilliant Spaniard decided to go wire-to-wire for his twenty-first career victory on the two big tours, holding off the challenge of Henrik Stenson.
On a first day when much of the focus was misdirected elsewhere, Sergio raced into the lead with a 65 and never surrendered it. Perhaps the conclusion of the third round was critical. In almost complete darkness on Saturday evening, Garcia, Coetzee and Elvira decided to finish the round and played the par five 18th hole with night goggles on. Keen to avoid having to return early on Sunday morning, yet not at the expense of dropping shots, the group went birdie-birdie-eagle in a remarkable scene against the backdrop of a spectacular Dubai night skyline. Garcia’s birdie gave him a three shot lead over Stenson going into the final round and he never really allowed Stenson to get too close on Sunday. After back to back birdies on the 13th and 14th holes had put Stenson within two strokes, Garcia replied with a sublime tee shot to two feet on the par three 15th, which, following a Stenson bogey on the same hole, gave Garcia a four shot cushion with three holes remaining. Work was still to be done, including a superb up-and-down on the 16th, but the two-shot swing on the 15th would prove to be the key moment of the back nine.
There are high expectations of Sergio. Some say he should have won more tournaments. Some say he should have won majors. Some say he will still win many more tournaments. Some say he will still win majors. I would agree with all of it. But the manner in which Sergio’s career has been covered in certain corners of the media raises a concern. We know he is good, just as we know other players are good, but why is there a need to psycho-analyse one of the best golfers of the last twenty years as if he has been failing in some respect? Winning golf tournaments is hard. Winning majors is even harder. There are only four of them a year. It has taken some of the greatest champions in the history of the sport a long time to make the major breakthrough. Some have never made it.
Sarah Stirk and Wayne Riley of Sky Sports have their own views, having apparently undertaken joint roles as Garcia’s psychologists. I had not realised this arrangement was in place. In a comical attempt at post tournament analysis, they seemed to be in a position to confirm that when Sergio was not playing well or winning tournaments every time he teed it up that it was because certain other players were “getting in his head” or because he was not engaged to be married. Would Sergio agree with this? Is this why he only finished tied for 19th place in his previous tournament? Have they asked him? Do they know what his actual psychologist thinks? Does he have one? What was going on with his head when he won all those other tournaments?
Then, in typically pointless fashion, Sarah asked Wayne “do you think Sergio will win a major this year?”. Wayne’s first answer was excellent: “do you want the lottery numbers as well?” and he should have left it at that. However, he then proceeded to undo his good work and claim that Birkdale would be Garcia’s best chance to win a major in 2017. Oh really? Is it because Sergio has finished T29 and T51 on the last two occasions The Open has been staged at Birkdale, despite having a significantly better record at most of the other venues on The Open rota? This is his year at The Open? It could be of course, but is Riley assuming that Sergio cannot putt on the Augusta greens? He has finished in the top-five at The Masters before, been in contention and shot plenty of rounds in the 60’s, so why would Augusta not suit him more than Birkdale? Especially if he putts on those greens like he putted this week. Has a tournament ever been played at this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills? Noting that the answer to that question is NO, then how do we know Birkdale will suit Sergio Garcia more than Erin Hills? By all accounts the long and firm set-up projected for this year’s US Open would seem to appeal to Sergio’s game. As for the PGA, Sergio has not won at Quail Hollow’s regular Tour stop, but he has gone as close as losing a playoff, which suggests that he knows his way around that track and therefore might just see the PGA Championship as just as much of a chance as Birkdale. True enough, Sergio loves The Open and The Open loves him, but I do not see how Birkdale specifically is Garcia’s “best chance” to win a major in 2017. His best chance is simply the next chance, which is in April at Augusta. This week in Dubai he was third in driving distance, second in driving accuracy, first in greens in regulation and seventeenth in putts per GIR. That to me suggests a game ready for anything and anywhere.