- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Sergio Garcia had just missed an 8-foot putt for par and, as he trudged down the little hill to the No. 4 tee, gloom had settled in. His mood soon brightened.
"Give me the finger, Sergio!" someone screamed in a fuel-injected baritone, prompting laughter from fellow galleryites, not to mention a slight smile from the Spaniard himself.
While the swarming U.S. Open crowd at Bethpage Black was largely well behaved Saturday, there were a few jokers laying in the two-foot-high heather, waiting for an opening -- which, inevitably, came.
How's the weather, Sergio?
Long day out there, eh, Serg?
Hit the damn ball, Sergio!
Sergio, did you bring your swimmies today?
"I don't think I've been bad to the crowd," Garcia said later. "You guys could see it was rough out there. But I'm actually glad it happened. It made me mature a lot and it was good. I mean, it was good to be in a major, contending in a major in the third round when you know you need a good round to have a chance tomorrow, contending with the crowd and everything. And to be able to put everything on the side and concentrate on just playing golf ... It was quite an experience."
Garcia, who began the day seven strokes behind Woods at 2-over-par, shot a nifty 67 and finds himself four strokes behind Woods, with whom he will be paired Sunday. Quite frankly, Garcia seemed to relish the give-and-take.
On Friday, Garcia struggled with the elements -- elements of his sometimes volatile 22-year-old personality. In the process of shooting a soggy, 4-over-par 74, Garcia had a few problems with the fans. This moved one pressroom wag to envision a New York Postesque shrieking tabloid headline:
"Spain in the Ass!"
"Sometimes they make some stupid comments," Garcia said. "I don't even want to tell -- I don't even want to say. But it looks like out there sometimes you get people that are too smart."
One fan on the 16th hole thought it might be helpful to count off the pre-shot waggles of Garcia's club -- several unofficial estimates placed the day's most offensive figure in the low 20s -- Garcia responded with the universal one-gun salute.
"I don't know," Garcia said, "it was like a 'Shut up, I'm trying to get something going here.' "
A fist, perhaps?
"Yeah," he answered, smiling, "sort of."
After saying that the U.S. Golf Association would have stopped play if Tiger Woods had been hacking around in the rain in the afternoon when he was on the course, after wondering if the golfers had to be swimming to get the USGA to halt play, Garcia had to know the New York crowd would let him hear it the next day. After suggesting that the USGA favored Woods with optimum tee times based on the weather, Garcia had to know.
Maybe that's why he left a note in Woods' locker Saturday morning, saying he "didn't mean anything bad" about Woods in his comments. Woods said he didn't see it before playing.
"Sometimes I don't think they realize how difficult it's playing out there," Sergio said in a brief interview before he teed off. "I'll just have to deal with it and move on."
And that is precisely what he did.
When Garcia appeared a few minutes before his 2:30 p.m. tee time, there was polite applause and a few, scattered shouts of encouragement. By the time he had walked to hit his second shot, the grace period had ended.
"The clock's running Sergio," someone shouted.
And, indeed, as Garcia fidgeted over the ball, gripped and re-gripped, you could hear the crowd, slyly, barely under its collective breath, counting the re-grips: "One ... two ... three ... four ... five ... six ... seven ... eight."
"Man," said one guy looking at his watch, "that was 30 seconds. He's got to pick it up out there."
It was a refrain heard throughout Garcia's round. That, and all those weather jokes. Garcia had the good grace to smile and trade observations with his caddie, Anthony Knight.
Toward the end of the round, when what Woods termed the spectators' "beverage of choice" seemed to be kicking in, there were a few nationalistic chants of "USA! USA! USA!" that seemed more geared to agitate Garcia than inspire his playing partner Jeff Maggert, the pride of Houston, Texas.
On Saturday, Garcia admitted he wished he hadn't said the things he said, but added, "Sometimes it's hard because you're trying hard in a major and you're trying to win it and you don't have a good round and you're a little hot. That's why I'm 22, because sometimes, you know, that heat may be my worst opponent. But today I was pretty calm out there and I was actually trying to handle it the best I could and I actually think that I didn't do too bad.
"More than anything, I don't mind people saying things. I just don't want people to say things when I'm over the ball. I'm concentrating at that time, so if you start yelling right there, then it's hard to try to hit a good shot."
Nick Faldo, another European with a notoriously low threshold for gallery yahoos, seems to have mellowed. Maybe it was the special invitation of the USGA, maybe it was the fact that he'll turn 45 this summer and isn't likely to add to his career total of six major championships. Faldo has been wearing an "I Love New York" hat through the first three rounds -- it's the 25th anniversary of the ad campaign -- and he, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying his exchanges with the fans.
But while Faldo will play several groups ahead of Garcia and Woods and seems beyond a title challenge, this is the position Garcia has been playing up to all his life. The No. 1 and No. 5 players in the world in the same pairing. It promises to be an absolute circus. Will Garcia converse with Woods?
"I don't know," Garcia said. "It all depends on him. I don't think he's a guy that likes to talk too much on a Sunday playing for a major, anyways. That's why we have a caddie, so we can talk to him."
In his post-round interview, Woods said that he hadn't read the note yet, but was impressed that Garcia was thoughtful enough to send it.
"It's awfully nice for him to do that," Woods said. "That shows me a lot. Tomorrow is going to be a lot of fun. I'm excited about going out there and playing with him. I'm sure he feels the same way.
"I've said the entire week, there's nothing wrong with the fans showing enthusiasm, just as long as they're respectful. And sometimes the fans have crossed the line, and that's unfortunate. And it's also unfortunate that Sergio made a mistake [Friday]. And that's the way it happens. You're dealing with emotions on both sides.
"The fans are charged up. The players are charged up because we're fighting our tail off out there. I just hope that tomorrow the fans are excited, but as I said, respectful to not only myself and Sergio, but for all the players."
Sergio Garcia tried to ignore the galleries, who continued to taunt him. Still, he managed a 67.