DUBLIN, Ohio – Even as he approaches the prime of his career, the best times for Sergio Garcia seem to be so far behind him.
Think back to that Sunday afternoon at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship, where a 19-year-old Spaniard was brimming with exuberance and absent of fear. See him sprint up the 16th fairway, and then leap like a gymnast in a floor routine to see his 6-iron shot from the base of a tree settle near the back of the green.
Those were joyous times for Garcia, filled with talent and promise. That was supposed to be the start of a rivalry with Tiger Woods to last a generation.
But it never got much better.
Even though he has won 23 times around the world, played in the final group in three majors, lost in a playoff in two majors and competed on six Ryder Cup teams, the runner-up finish as a teenager remains the highlight most fans remember.
And the only semblance of a rivalry with Woods has been based on words, not winning.
For Garcia, the U.S. Open at Merion might live up to its reputation as the toughest test in golf — outside the ropes. He returns to America, on one of the biggest stages in golf, for the first time since a public feud with Woods took an ugly turn at a celebration dinner in England. Garcia jokingly was asked if he would invite Woods over for dinner during the U.S. Open. "We will serve fried chicken," Garcia replied with a grin.
It was his biggest gaffe in a career loaded with them — worse than heaving a 5-iron into the water after a poor shot in Thailand, spitting into the cup at Doral after a missed putt, blaming a rules official for assessing a penalty on him in Australia, pouting about the bad breaks that cost him the claret jug at Carnoustie.
"He's got such a big heart," Ernie Els said. "He's a fun-loving guy. He had a lot coming his way very quickly, and then taking some knocks has been tough for him. But it's going to be tough for him now. I wish he didn't say it. He wishes he didn't say it. This is something that's going to stick with him."
Will he be seen as a contender or a villain at Merion?
Garcia apologized at a press conference at Wentworth the day after his comment. He did not read from a statement. He took questions until there were none left to ask. "I feel sick about it and I feel truly, truly sorry," he said on May 22. "I want to apologize to Tiger and anyone I could have offended."
For his part, Woods said he was ready to put it behind him. Even when asked if it would be better to get in touch with Garcia before the U.S. Open to avoid an awkward meeting at a major, Woods replied, "Move on."
Ticket sales are about 60 percent less than other U.S. Opens because Merion is a tiny piece of property. But it's in Philadelphia, a city that spares no one its sporting wrath.
Paul Azinger expected Garcia to face a "very long, tough week."
"You've got to have the skill to not allow yourself to get crushed over it," Azinger said.
"Philly has got some amazing fans. It's a great sports city," two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North added. "But you also have to remember, this is a city that booed Santa Claus. So it will be interesting."
The broader picture is that Garcia could be at a crossroads in his career at the ripe young age of 33.
He is regarded as one of the best players to have never won a major. Much like Phil Mickelson before Lefty finally won the Masters, the talk about Garcia and majors was more a matter of "when" than "if." But in another rash moment in front of reporters last year after a 75 in the third round took him out of contention at the Masters, Garcia said he was convinced he was not good enough to win a major.
"The thing I like about Sergio is he speaks his mind. We might like it or we might not, but he says what he feels," said Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who has known Garcia since they were boys. "I remember last year at the Masters when he said he will never win a major, and he doesn't have what you need to win a major. We're the same age. We've been playing together since we were 10 years old. He has always beat the (stuff) out of me, every time.
"OK, so if this guy doesn't have it, how about me? What am I doing here?"
Fernandez-Castano laughed at his own self-deprecating joke. He doesn't believe Garcia is incapable of winning a major, though he wonders about Merion.
"I think he's going to have a hard time," Fernandez-Castano said. "I do think he has a chance to win. But with everything that has happened, I don't fancy his chances, which is a shame. There's only four majors a year, and the U.S. Open is one he is good at."
The emotions of Garcia can shift without warning. Charming one minute, churlish the next. He might be the closest thing golf ever had to a John McEnroe. But those closest to him portray a different person, someone with so much passion that it doesn't take much to carry over into petulance.
"I like him because he's always been a friend to me. He always made me feel comfortable in his presence," Rory McIlroy said. "In some ways, he probably sees a little bit of himself in me, being young. He's got a big heart. He's fun to be around. Everyone knows his faults — we all have them — and he lets himself down once in a while.
"He's had some tough losses," McIlroy said. "He has had some bad breaks. Maybe he's made a bigger deal of them than some others have."
Adam Scott pulled Garcia aside after they played the opening two rounds last summer in the PGA Championship, where Garcia missed the cut in his second straight major. They are longtime friends, and the Australian essentially told him to quit beating himself up. A week later, Garcia won in Greensboro, N.C.
"He's enthusiastic when he's off the golf course," Scott said, pausing to smile before adding, "and sometimes he's enthusiastic on the golf course."
Scott turned pro the year after Garcia, and he spent his first two years trying to get sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour while learning a new country. He leaned heavily on Garcia, and they remain close.
"I was over my head trying to play sponsor invites," Scott said. "He took me to dinner all the time, and he wouldn't let me pay for dinner until I had a tour card."
The dispute with Woods began during a rain delay at The Players Championship. Garcia implied in a TV interview that Woods purposely riled up the gallery by pulling a 5-wood from his bag to play a high risk shot out of the trees, and that Woods should have been paying enough attention to realize the Spaniard was about to hit. That's not how it looked on the golf course, or in television replays.
Woods, who typically prefers to avoid confrontations, denied that was the case. But then he added, "Not real surprising that he's complaining about something."
What followed was a series of verbal jabs by Garcia over the next week, including these:
— "He's not the nicest guy on tour."
— "He can and will beat me a lot of times, but he's not going to step on me. I'm not afraid of him."
— "He called me a whiner. That's probably right. It's also probably the first thing he's told you guys that's true in 15 years."
It ended badly with the comment about fried chicken that brought back memories of Fuzzy Zoeller telling Woods not to serve that or collard greens or "whatever the hell they serve" as Woods was on his way to winning the 1997 Masters.
That followed Zoeller the rest of his career. Will it do the same to Garcia, starting at Merion?
"I don't imagine his reception will be real negative," Stewart Cink said. "People have short memories for things nowadays. That's just the modern way."
Cink was paired with Garcia that day at Medinah in 1999, when he closed his eyes and ripped that 6-iron from the base of the tree and then dashed down the fairway. The following week, Cink raved about the kid by calling him a breath of fresh air and fun to watch.
"His attitude soured a little bit, but I think that's what professional golf can do to you," Cink said. "It gives a heavy dose of failure and tests you as far as how you want to handle it. I'm not saying Sergio didn't handle it well. But at times, it gets to him. Just like it gets to me. Just like it gets to all of us."
Garcia was behaving oddly in the minutes before he teed off in the final group with Woods that Saturday at Sawgrass. He never hit a practice putt; he just stood at his bag. The energy around the first tee for the Woods-Garcia pairing made it feel much bigger, yet Garcia barely cracked a smile. It was almost as if he was resigned to lose.
What happened to that 19-year-old at Medinah?
Where has all the joy gone?
How much different would he be if Garcia's 10-foot putt on the final hole at Carnoustie had dipped in instead of out? Or if he had made that 5-foot bride putt at Oakland Hills instead of a second straight year losing to Padraig Harrington?
The bigger question is where he goes from here.
"I think he doesn't believe in himself that much. He doesn't believe how good he is," Fernandez-Castano said. "I guess he's been unlucky — unlucky to be in Tiger's generation."