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MIYAZAKI — As a kid growing up, Sergio Garcia dreamed of being a soccer star for his beloved Real Madrid. With no disrespect to his potential soccer abilities, it is probably a good thing that he chose to become a professional golfer. Since turning pro in 1999, “El Nino” has taken the golfing world by storm. Garcia won the Murphy’s Irish Open in only his sixth start as a professional and became the fourth-youngest winner on the European Tour at the age of 19 years and 179 days.

He followed that up with a second place behind Tiger Woods in the 1999 U.S. PGA Championship at Medinah when attempting to be the youngest winner of a Major championship for 129 years, pulling off a “miracle shot” from an impossible lie behind a tree that grabbed all the headlines.

Garcia made his breakthrough on the U.S. PGA Tour in 2001, winning the MasterCard Colonial, and following that with a second victory by capturing the Buick Classic a month later.

Arguably the biggest drawcard in golf outside of Tiger Woods, Garcia has also been a key member of two European Ryder Cup teams, compiling a record of five wins, one half and three losses. The Japan Times caught up with the 22-year-old golfing sensation at the recent Dunlop Phoenix Tournament held at the Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort in Miyazaki.

The Japan Times: You started playing golf at the age of three and won your first tournament when your were 12, yet you wanted to become a soccer player. What made you change your mind and focus on golf instead?

Sergio Garcia: I realized that I would have a better opportunity to succeed in golf as my father was a pro and could pass on tips to me all the time. Growing up surrounded by golf was a big factor in my development.

You have had a pretty consistent year with eight Top 10 finishes on the U.S. PGA Tour and victory at the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii as well as two Top-10 finishes on the European Tour and being part of the winning European Ryder Cup team. Is there any specific reason why you have not managed to convert more of those Top-10 finishes into wins?

I have been playing well this year but at the beginning of the year when I was playing really well, I had some problems with my putting and failed to convert many chances. This is something that I have been working on and hope to improve on for next year.

You had a well-publicized bust-up with fellow-Spanish legend Seve Ballesteros earlier this year over you not playing in one of his tournaments.

That was just a misunderstanding and a problem with miscommunication. Everything is fine now and we are good friends.

As Seve was the first to get Spanish golf on the map, does he take time out to advise you and encourage you as he did for Jose Maria Olazabal?

Yeah, he sometimes gives me tips but he used to do so more when I was a kid. My father is my coach and he gives me all the help I need right now.

David Duval said in an interview recently that if he had to pick between Jack Nicklaus in his prime and Tiger Woods right now, he would have no hesitation in taking Tiger because of his superior short game. Would you go along with this assessment?

I think it is too difficult to compare because they are from different eras and golf technology is so much different now than before. Jack was a great player but so is Tiger.

You have been talked about as being potentially Tiger’s biggest challenger because of your age and natural ability. Do you see a personal rivalry developing between the two of you?

I am a player who loves challenges and every time I play in a tournament where Tiger is involved, it brings out the best in me. Tiger is a step ahead of everyone at the moment but playing with him motivates me to lift my game.

You have been a star on the European Ryder Cup at a young age and many people look up to you for that. You have also not won a major yet. Which would mean more to you, winning the Ryder Cup or a major?

Well the Ryder Cup is big for the Europeans especially, but winning a major is the dream of every golfer. That would be a tough call.

At the 1999 U.S. PGA Championship you started sprinting down the fairway after hitting an impossible shot and after winning your first professional tournament you, your mother and father all shaved your heads. This had lead to the perception among many fans that you are one of the characters on Tour. Does this have any influence on your game?

I am a very emotional player, when my emotions come out on the golf course . . . that’s when I’m at my best. With me, what you see is what you get.

Which Japanese golfer impresses you the most?

I like (Shigeki) Maruyama. He is a great player and a nice guy. He is also very funny so it is nice to see a player like him doing so well. He hits the ball very straight and long and he is a good putter. He is generally a good, consistent player.

You list tennis as one of your hobbies. Is there any truth in the rumor that you are/were dating former tennis world No. 1 Martina Hingis?

Actually we are just friends. I call her a lot and she calls me a lot to see how things are going but nothing more than that.

What are your goals for next year?

I want to try and win a major and finish as high as I can on the money list.

We hope to see you back in Japan next year.

I hope to be back because I love it here. This is a great resort with a challenging course and lots of facilities. I always feel comfortable here.

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