By John Wunder
On Aug. 15, 1999 the world was witness to what potentially could have been one of the most exciting rivalries in golf history. It had all the makings of Nicklaus vs. Palmer or Hogan vs Snead. As a fan I feel somewhat cheated that it has yet to come to fruition but with clever pairings and a touch of luck we will have our chance to rekindle this soap opera.
Down the stretch at the PGA in 1999 held at Medinah. Tiger Woods battled Sergio Garcia shot for shot, it was an epic afternoon and as we all watched with bated breath Tiger finished just a nose ahead. I still remember his expression after he holed the final putt, it was one of the only times I can remember that I’ve seen Tiger truly relieved… and exhausted. The wide-eyed Garcia had pushed him to the brink.
Sergio, although playing in the group ahead that Sunday, managed to isolate himself and Tiger from the rest of the field and they both provided blow after blow including a shot from the trunk of a tree (which has since been cut down) that will go down as one of the greats.
So much has been made of Sergio’s heroics from the root of that tree, but that wasn’t the shot that lit the fire. It was the exchange at Nos. 12 and 13 that got it going. After Tiger had bogeyed No. 12 and walked on to the 13th tee he became audience to Garcia holing his 15 footer for birdie and than on cue pointing back up at the tee to where Tiger was standing. It was a challenge. That moment represented exactly what I believe Sergio envisioned for the rest of his career. He was going to be the one that challenged Tiger in the Majors — it was just going to be the two of them like Rocky and Apollo until one of them decided to stop.
As exciting as that would have been, we all know how the rest of the story plays out. Tiger went on to… well, he was Tiger Woods (enough said). And Sergio gave us flashes of brilliance, immaturity, heartbreak, confusion and even a little anger. Besides the random skins game or battle at Big Horn we never got a full taste of what could have been between these two.
I don’t think Sergio ever allowed himself to regulate his emotions. He, like his mentor Seve Ballesteros, plays with his heart on his sleeve. As time went on and Tiger continued to win, we saw Sergio’s fire dwindle. In his early 20s immaturity cost him a lot of big tournaments and in the 2002 U.S. Open his resentment for Tiger went on full display. He verbally expressed his opinion of favorable tee times to Tiger as an injustice by the USGA and favoritism. That’s when the true separation of these two players really occurred. Sergio wasn’t the wiry kid having fun anymore. He was just another player trying to figure out how to keep up with the juggernaut Woods.
Fast forward to this week at the Ryder Cup and the scene of their first face-off. Both men having been humbled by life and the game but who still have that chip on their shoulders that all the great ones have.
As a golf fan I feel if these two were to square off on Sunday for the Ryder Cup it would provide us with probably the most electrifying golf the sport has ever seen. Although their bodies of work aren’t exactly apples to apples, there is still unfinished business, especially for Garcia. I realize he won the Wyndham Championship this year, but I don’t think we have seen him in full flight. The grand performance is what drives him. The roar of the crowd or the act of silencing them. He hasn’t had his Madison Square Garden moment yet.
If the golf gods allow, Sunday will be the day. I know deep down that this matchup would fuel Tiger as well. These two had a relationship much like Rory and Tiger do now, but that changed. Success or lack there of will do that to a relationship.
Woods seems to harbor feelings for any naysayers he has ever had. Ask Stephen Ames or Rory Sabbatini, it hasn’t ended so well. There is something different about his relationship with Sergio, an unspoken flame that burns. Almost like Manny Pacquio and Floyd Mayweather, these two have more or less tip toed around each other for a decade. Now that life has balanced them both out and they seem to be standing flat footed on the planet, the golf can do all the talking. No resumes, no money, no FedExCup points. Just a Tiger and a Bull locked in a ring going at each other with everything they have. One player wanting to prove that he’s back and the other to prove that his best is still yet to come.
I understand that to a great majority a Tiger v. Rory match would be the one to hope for, but I disagree. It’s too early in McIlroy’s career for that. It’s too clean. That battle we can save for Augusta. Since it’s the Ryder Cup, there is a blood, sweat and tears aspect to this thing. Rory hasn’t had enough dirt kicked in his face, nor enough disappointment. He will get his chance soon enough.
The game needs this match as a reminder of just how beautifully volatile this relationship is. How many Ryder Cups have gone by with us just missing a true Tiger moment. His play in the Cup has been by his standards lack luster. I can’t recall a moment where the crowd erupted after a long putt and we got a glimpse of a Tiger fist pump. That can all change this week. It’s his turf he’s defending — he’s 2-0 at Medinah.
On the flip side, Sergio has represented his true form at the Ryder Cup. Watch past highlights of him as a player or as an assistant. It’s pure love of country and competition. It has not only been his greatest stage but the one thing that he can hang over Tiger’s head. Sergio has the ability to push Tiger on the course, physically and emotionally. It’s what he was born to do, that’s the essence of his game. He had a great teacher in Ballesteros.
Woods and Garcia are well aware of the magnitude of this potential face-off. Jose Marie Olazabel knows it and Captain Love is well aware I’m sure. The tension would be palpable.
Its time for Tiger vs. Sergio II. The rematch. It’s the perfect location, the perfect moment.
Trust me… this one you will never forget. It’s personal.