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BOB RYAN

Greatness has eluded Garcia

HOYLAKE, England -- If Sergio Garcia's career ended today, it would be regarded as a success.

The average PGA or European Tour golfer would be happy with a résumé that includes 12 tournament victories, split evenly between the tours, and United States winnings alone of more than $15 million, plus three Ryder Cup appearances, all before the age of 27. At least, I think so.

But there is a concurrent element of greatly unfinished business involving Sergio. This is what happens when you are a true wonder child. You can't get away with merely being very good. It is simply understood that you must fulfill your promise.

Most people would agree that Sergio Garcia has thus far fallen short of expectations.

I don't know if Garcia qualifies as The Best (Current) Player Never To Win A Major, but, with the possible exception of Colin Montgomerie, no one needs one more.

Sergio Garcia truly needs a major championship, and he gave himself a chance to win the British Open with yesterday's opening round of 68 at Royal Liverpool.

``A 68," he said. ``I'll take 4 under par in a major. Doesn't matter if it's playing easy or tough, I'll take it every time."

So who is Sergio Garcia at age 26? He is no longer that exuberant kid who hit that spectacular shot from behind the tree at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship and then practically outran the ball to the green. He's no longer the brash young Spaniard who just about called out Tiger Woods as they battled to the end of that tournament. He was 19 then, a refreshing young presence, and you thought, ``Oh, wow, this kid may be the one to push Tiger."

But it never really happened. Garcia did not build on that early promise in quite the manner people thought he would. He has gone through stages -- remember the Bethpage crowd counting the waggles? -- until now it is kind of taken for granted that he will find a way to play himself out of important tournaments, by erratic driving or, more frequently, poor putting. You know he's a good player, but you half expect Sergio to shoot 76 on Sunday.

Was it simply too easy in the beginning? In a world that has always produced prodigies, Sergio Garcia was one of the most notable. The son of a golf professional, Garcia won the championship of Mediterraneo Club de Golf at age 12 and was a scratch player at 13. He was an utterly dominant amateur, winning the 1995 European Amateur at 15 (the youngest ever). In 1997-98, he played in 21 amateur tournaments and won 17 (to go with three runners-up and a third), including the '98 British Amateur.

He turned pro following the 1999 Masters. Four months later, he was finishing second to Woods in that PGA. In eight tournaments in '99, he posted four top-10 finishes. He picked up some nice spending money ($784,917) and, I'm sure, went back home assuming he'd be winning majors, pronto.

Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton have since won majors. But Sergio Garcia is still looking for that first one.

He's always decent. You certainly cannot imagine the Ryder Cup without him, and he should be there again come September, no problem, since he's sitting seventh in European qualifying points. It's just that he has not separated himself from the pack, as we all assumed he would. He's a first-tier player, but he seldom gets mentioned as a favorite to win a major.

His 4 under yesterday morning and early afternoon included five birdies and one bogey. He put a smile on his face with a birdie 4 on the 18th, a 560-yard dogleg right that has always been the 16th for the members. He acknowledged it was a far different course from the one he and his colleagues had been practicing on all week. All it took was a little opening up of the skies.

``If it had not have rained, you wouldn't be seeing the scores you're seeing," Garcia said. ``But the overnight rain definitely softened up the course. It made hitting the fairways a little easier and, of course, stopping on the greens was much easier than it's been the last three days."

Beginning with the Masters, here are his last six PGA Tour finishes: 46, T-38, missed cut, T-18, disqualification, and missed cut. He did come here following a T-9 finish at the Barclays Scottish Open. All in all, that's a pretty blah run.

This was a man who could use a nice opening round.

``I know I still have to work on my game," he acknowledged. ``Don't get me wrong; it's a very nice round, but I'm not fully satisfied. I feel like there's two or three shots that I could still get a lot better with.

``I did enjoy the way I drove the ball today, for the most part," he continued. ``I think I only missed the 14th and 17th fairways, and I only missed the 17th by about 3 feet. So that was nice to see. And hopefully I can keep doing the same thing and hit a lot of greens. That's always important in major championships. And if I roll the potato nicely, that would be good."

(``Roll the potato?" Is Sergio tapping into his inner Dick Vitale?)

There is nothing wrong with the career Sergio Garcia is having if he didn't happen to be Sergio Garcia. He was La Promesa, the vibrant, young man who was going to do great things. Up until now, he's only done good things. You make your reputation on majors. Sergio Garcia needs to win a major.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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