Is Sergio finally ready for greatness?

Sergio Garcia has teased his fans by coming agonizingly close to greatness many times, including this season.

Even Jack Nicklaus stood up and took notice when the 34-year-old Spaniard finished second to Rory McIlroy in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and again in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational before remaining in the hunt until the final round as McIlroy claimed his third consecutive victory in the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

Nicklaus said it was a shame that Garcia was playing some of the best golf of his career at the time when McIlroy decided to go off.

“I can see what Jack is referring to in a way, but I think that at the end of the day, the only thing I can do is try to play the best I can and to the best of my ability on that certain day,” said Garcia, who will play this week in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, the fourth of six weeks on the front end of the PGA Tour’s 2014-15 wraparound schedule.

“You know, if I manage to do that, I know that I’ve shown that I can play really, really well. But if somebody else plays better, the only thing I can do is congratulate him and move on.”

Actually, that is the story of Garcia’s career, so many might-have-beens.

They called him “El Nino” (“The Child”), when he played in the 1999 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes as a 16-year-old, and three years later he was chasing Tiger Woods all the way to the finish of the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

What we didn’t know is that would be the first of many classic near-misses.

Garcia has finished in the top 10 on 19 occasions in the majors, including second four times, without winning one of the Grand Slam events.

In 2007, he was second in the Open Championship at Carnoustie, and a year later, he was runner-up in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, both times to Ireland’s Padraig Harrington.

“Obviously, I’ve always wanted to win at least one (major), but I would never say I felt urgency about it,” said Garcia, who has 27 professional victories in his career.

“I mean, obviously we’re here trying to do it, week in, week out, so it would be nice. But like I’ve always said, if I get to 45 and I haven’t won one, then I’ll probably start worrying a bit more. But I don’t know, hopefully that won’t happen.”

After something of a mid-career slump, Garcia rebounded by winning the 2012 Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour. He captured the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters on the European Tour early this year before posting 10 finishes in the top 10 on the PGA Tour, including five in the top three.

Garcia again helped the Europeans beat the United States in the Ryder Cup, posting a 2-1-1 record, including a 1-up victory over Jim Furyk in singles last month at Gleneagles in Scotland.

“It’s been a good year,” said Garcia, who can make it even better because he ranks second to McIlroy in the Euro Tour’s Race to Dubai, which winds up next month.

“Obviously a lot of high finishes, some really good chances of winning tournaments. Unfortunately, it’s only happened once this year in Qatar, but yeah, I’m excited about it.”

It is not too hard to see why Garcia is playing better.

When he was young and fearless, he was one of the best putters in the game, ranking fourth on the PGA Tour with an average of 28.23 putts per round for the 2010 season.

Somehow, he lost that touch and struggled for years, trying everything from the belly putter to the cross-handed grip to the claw. In 2010, when he even took a break from the game, he ranked 123rd on the PGA Tour with an average of 29.36 strokes per round on the greens.

This year, he was down to 28.59 and ranked ninth in the new statistic of strokes gained putting.

“Based on my play this year, I can see why you might think I’ve become a good putter overnight,” said Garcia, who has stayed with the claw grip. “When I shot 61 in the second round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August, including a 27 on the back nine, I had 11 consecutive one-putts. Five of those birdie putts were longer than 13 feet. So it’s true that I’m rolling in a lot of putts I used to miss.

“But if you look at my statistics, I’ve actually putted well the last three years. It’s not like I just flipped a switch. I’ve steadily improved since I changed my grip and tweaked my stroke. When you step back and look at it, the most important thing for becoming a good putter is feel. And right now, I’m feeling good.”

Good enough to finally win a major in 2015?

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Sports Editor Tom LaMarre

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