PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s funny how perceptions change. Think George Foreman. Big, hulking, brooding, tough guy that nobody rooted for as the heavyweight champion. After losing to Ali in the ‘rope-a-dope’ fight, the public started to take to Foreman and through the years he’s become the big loveable guy who sells grills.
For a long time in his career, Sergio Garcia was the villain, certainly not the favorite in any situation and especially not in the US. He started as Tiger Woods’ rival as a 19-year old teenager. He became the “Best player to have not won a major” for a long time. Then he was the petulant, self-pitying, talented player who never achieved his potential. The bottom of his image came when he said, “I’m not good enough. I have to accept that I’m just playing for second or third.” He was openly heckled in the playoff at The Players in 2015.
In his 20-years on the PGA Tour, Garcia certainly appears to have matured, and the perception of him has come from fans and media who weren’t part of his inner circle. He became the favorite on the back nine at the Masters this year and the outpouring of support since winning his first major surprised him. Because, in his mind, Garcia hasn’t changed at all.
“I think I've been saying it, and I always say it, that I'm still the same person. I told you, I always try to be true to myself,” Garcia said on Wednesday at The Players. “I try to be as genuine as I can be and as honest as possible. I think that at the end of the day that people see that, and now they're even happier because, yeah, we won at Augusta. But I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is to not change. You are who you are, and one major or 20 majors shouldn't change you.”
No question Garcia had doubts. His public comments reflect that. But perhaps what he didn’t know was how many of his peers were on his side. That has surprised him since winning the Masters in April.
“Yeah, it's been amazing. I think that -- there's so many great things that have happened since Sunday at Augusta,” he explained. “You know, the support from fans and supporters and everyone around the world has been amazing. But for me, what has meant the most, it's to see the reaction from the players, you know, towards me and how happy -- other than a couple, how happy they all have been (laughing). It shows me how much my fellow players respect me and care about me. It's something that you can't really fake, so that's awesome.”
In the four weeks since his win in Augusta, Garcia hasn’t played any competitive golf but he’s been busy. He attended Rory McElroy’s wedding, he tapped the ceremonial opening kick in Spain at El Classico and he spent a couple of weeks at his place in Switzerland. So to come back for his first tournament at The Players would seem like a challenge. But his track record at the Stadium Course is stellar and even with the one win in 2008; he’s been in contention enough to have won a few more.
“I like the golf course,” he said. “I feel like I'm still swinging the club well. I feel confident out there. I've just got to keep doing more and more of that, and at the end of the day, it's the same thing we did four weeks ago, so it shouldn't change too much.”
“Is it ideal to come back and be the first tournament this one? Hopefully. Hopefully we'll be able to say that on Sunday.”
Since he hasn’t played on Tour since the Masters, when he tees it up on the first tee on Thursday it’ll be the first time he’s been introduced as the “Masters Champion,” part of the ceremonial nature announcing the players each week. Even he admitted that will be special.
“I'd love to tell you what it's going to feel like,” he said, “But I'm not going to know until Thursday, but I'm excited about it. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm sure a lot of things will go through my mind about that week and stuff, but it's a great thing to have.”
And true to his thought that he’s the same person, Garcia said he’s still trying to win.
“At the end of the day, to stay hungry, the other thing you have to do is just keep working hard,” he added. “I know that I can still improve, so that's my goal. I've always said it, my goal is always to become better, so it doesn't matter -- like I said, I could have a year where I don't win and I feel really, really good about what I've done because I feel like I've become better, and then some of the years where obviously maybe you get three or four wins and they're even better, but it doesn't mean that -- it's not only about winning.”
When asked who the “Best Player to Not Win a Major” is now, Garcia paused and with a laugh said, “Not me!”