Sergio Garcia exorcised what he described as "the Wachovia ghost" yesterday in the final round of the Booz Allen Classic, playing his first 10 holes in 7 under par to seize control at Congressional Country Club, then keeping a firm grip on his emotions and his swing down the stretch for a two-shot victory, his first on the PGA Tour this season.
Garcia went out in 30 yesterday, the best front-nine score of the week, on his way to the low round of the day, a 6-under 65 that gave him a tournament-record 14-under 270. Davis Love III charged up the leader board with a 66 that included birdies on two of his final three holes to tie for second place with Ben Crane (67) and defending champion Adam Scott (68), all at 12-under 272.
The 25-year-old Spaniard's sixth tour victory was good for $900,000 and marked the third time he has won the week before the U.S. Open.
"They should just move the U.S. Open a week earlier," said Garcia, who continues to seek his first major championship. "It's one of those things; there's nothing to it. I guess I've had the chance to play great courses before the U.S. Open. It's the tougher courses I feel good playing."
On May 8, Garcia had a six-shot lead in the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte before shooting a final-round 72 that sent him into a three-way playoff with Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk. He was eliminated on the first playoff hole and Singh went on to win, making Garcia the fifth player in tour history to lose after leading by six shots.
Just this past Wednesday, Scott, 24, had given Garcia a putting tip, essentially telling him to look at the cup during his short putting drills and not to worry about the stroke itself. Garcia needed only 24 putts yesterday, including a stretch of seven straight one-putt greens starting at the fourth hole, and finished as the best putter in the field.
"I like to practice putting at times looking at the hole when I practice, just to take my mind off the stroke and think about something else," Scott said. "I told him to give it a try. I wasn't trying to fix his stroke. It was to get a different feel. Maybe I should charge him. . . . Sergio is a good friend. I don't want to see him struggle. I'd rather us play our best and battle it out to see who's better. That's why we're out here."
Garcia said of Scott's suggestion: "Of course it helped. The main thing is it makes you think better. You're standing over your putt thinking, 'This is going in, this is going in.' It changes your mentality. . . . The last couple of rounds this week, I was standing over a putt thinking, 'This is going in.' It didn't matter the length or the difficulty, I knew it was going in and I could see it going in."
Still, Garcia had several chances to botch this victory on a day more than 40,000 people came out to see whether Tom Kite, at 55, could become the oldest champion in tour history. (He couldn't, making three-putt bogeys on two of his first three holes and fading to a 74 and a tie for 13th.)
Instead, one contender after another succumbed to Congressional's demanding back nine. Garcia's closest pursuer, Scott, was within two shots of the lead when he came to the 466-yard 17th, the signature peninsula hole with its green jutting out into a pond.
After a gigantic 350-yard drive that landed in the first cut of rough, Scott had a relatively simple sand wedge to the green, with water left, right and behind. His shot seemed perfectly struck, but ballooned to the back collar, took a high hop into a greenside bunker and somehow bounced again on the sand and out of the bunker, down the grassy bank into the pond, leading to the only bogey on Scott's card in a round of 68.
"I didn't think I hit a bad shot," Scott said afterward. "I had 133 yards downhill and downwind. I hit a sand wedge. I couldn't predict that happening. I was looking for anything inside 20 feet. I wasn't even trying to be greedy. . . . I never thought it would go that far. It was a bit of a bad break. You get good breaks when you win."
Scott felt even worse about that second shot in the water when he saw where Garcia's tee shot at the 190-yard 18th hole across the pond had landed. Garcia hit what he called a "push, slice, shank" 8-iron to the right of the green in deep rough. He two-putted for bogey, but knew by the time he got to his second shot at 18 that Scott was in the water at 17, allowing him to get away with the mistake, at least this week.
Others could not. One of the more stunning collapses came from the man who won the 1997 U.S. Open here. With four consecutive birdies to close out his front nine, Ernie Els was at 13 under when he made the turn, only two shots off Garcia's lead. But after two-putting for par from 60 feet at the 489-yard No. 10, the toughest hole on the course all week, he basically butchered the next three with three-putts at 11 and 12 and a poor approach at the 13th.
That led to three straight bogeys, and his day ended with a double bogey in the water at the 18th, leaving him tied for seventh.
"I'm playing okay," Els insisted afterward. "I just made a lot of mistakes this week. But I'm doing a lot of good things, so I'm looking forward to playing" in the U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst.
So is Vijay Singh. Never in contention this week, he posted 71 yesterday, tied for 29th and lost his No. 1 ranking to Tiger Woods. He had to finish at least tied for second to stay No. 1, even though Woods took the week off.
Crane pushed into a share of second place with an astounding 50-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Still, he was feeling rather guilty afterward because his playing partner, Rory Sabbatini, was angry over Crane's slow play. At the 17th, Sabbatini walked ahead to the green before Crane had even hit his second shot, and when they walked off the 18th, Sabbatini was yapping at Crane about his turtle pace all day.
"I understand he's frustrated and I feel bad," Crane said, taking the high road. "I can't change the situation, but I am the one who caused the problem. I need to work on picking up the pace, and I understand that."
Sabbatini declined to comment.
Garcia, meantime, said he'd been on a joy ride all week. He had described Congressional as "amazing" before play even began and he said yesterday the back nine "is probably the best nine holes in a row I've seen in my life. I'm just happy that I had the pleasure and the chance of playing here, and even better to become the champion."