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Sergio Garcia: Supergood, Superbad

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After a crazy, dazzling, wildly unpredictable 2009 Masters, we could all be forgiven for wanting a little breather before the next major championship in golf, the U.S Open in June.

Not gonna happen!

It's game on now, and the next biggie is the Players Championship, recently rechristened, annoyingly, just the "Players," to make it seem more like...yes, you get it.

The Players always boasts that it has the best field in professional golf, and due to its treacherous island green on the 17th hole, it has generated no shortage of triumph and tragedy over the years. It's a tournament that most of the good players want to win--and have won--at least once. It's sometimes called the "fifth major," but personally I think it's the second major: more watchable than the British, less of a grind than the U.S. Open. Less fluky than the PGA Championship. Plus, like the Masters, it's played on the same course every year, the TPC at Sawgrass.

Mickelson won in 2007, bouncing back from his U.S. Open final hole collapse the previous year. Last year, Sergio Garcia won, repairing some damage from his own failure to with the British Open in '07, and setting himself provisionally back in the path to being a top player, in the mix with Woods and Mickelson. Early this year, it was looking as if he had succeeded: He's currently the world's number 3 ranked player.

Then, the Masters.

Sergio made the cut but finished tied for 38th, and afterwards complained about the fairness of the course. He later issued an apology, but this is the second time he's been petulant at Augusta--and the last time, he had at least shot a terrific final round. Given the condition of his countryman and former great, Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who is suffering from brain cancer, Garcia didn't represent very well at Augusta. (Ballesteros was the first European to win the Masters, in 1980, and for many defined a certain swashbuckling style of Spanish golf.)

Garcia is at a critical stage in his career. After bursting onto the scene in 1999, when he battled Woods' down the stretch at the PGA Championship (Tiger eventually won, but Sergio's flamboyant play shook him up a bit), Garcia has drifted. His game is extremely solid--he may be the most talented driver of the ball in the world--but his putting is an ordeal. At the U.S. Open in 2002 at Bethpage in New York, he was jeered by spectators for a (since vanished) nervous habit of gripping and re-gripping his clubs. He's got some Jekyll and Hyde in him: ebullient one day, a tortured head case the next.

He's made up for his shortfalls in majors by being a longtime Ryder Cup standout for Europe (team competition seems to release him from his individualistic funks). And for the better part of a decade, fans have been willing to forgive his bitchiness because he's such a youthful, enthusiastic presence in a sport that can sometimes seem like a joyless grind. Plus, he does those double-entendre Michelob commercials with all the sexy ladies. Not exactly Kenny Perry territory, that.

This year, however, his timing stinks. Attacking Augusta National is simply pointless--there's no more beloved course anywhere. He has a good head of steam so far this year and doesn't need any cranky media pressure to throw off his mojo. He's defending at the Players, and playing well. And he's headed back to Bethpage for the U.S. Open--so the last thing he wants is to give the unruly New York fans yet another excuse to taunt him before, during, and after every swing. (In golf, that's bad manners, but at Bethpage, the rules are adjusted slightly, because New York sports fans, on their own treacherous public course, aren't inclined to observe a dignified silence during play.)

Golf fans have always enjoyed the kid in Garcia--or tried to, anyway. He didn't get the nickname El Nino for nothing. But as he nears 30, entering his competitive prime, exiting the era of his precocious youth, it's time for the kid to grow up.