Sergio Garcia likely to face the wrath of the Philadelphia sports fans at Merion

Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington will have a close-up view of the discomfort set to befall the Spaniard


The luck of the draw, bad rather than good, will give Pádraig Harrington a close-up view of the discomfort set to befall Sergio Garcia on the 11th tee tomorrow. It’s unlikely to be pretty, for Philadelphia sports fans – among the most passionate to be found in the USA – have a reputation for being rather nasty, both verbally and physically, with those they perceive to be sporting villains.

Whatever about golfing etiquette that traditionally frowns upon any sort of disrespect from the crowd to players, Garcia – whether he likes it or not – will feel the heat.

After all, this is a part of world where fans have made a habit of bucking convention. Indeed, so many violent acts occurred at the old Veterans Stadium, the one-time home to the Philadelphia Eagles football team, that a courtroom was built into the stadium where unruly fans were taken for immediate justice to be dispensed.

When one-time US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin turned up to make the ceremonial start to a Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey match against the New York Rangers, the scoreboard urged supporters to welcome her. “Flyers fans, show Philadelphia’s class and welcome America’s No. 1 hockey mom, Sarah Palin.” Instead, she was roundly and loudly booed.

For the final game of the regular NFL season in 1968, where the Eagles were pitted against the Minnesota Vikings, it was felt that a half-time parade featuring the Eaglette cheerleaders dressed as elves, a 50-piece brass band, eight life-sized fibreglass reindeers and Santa Claus would cheer up the crowd. There was no festive cheer, however, and the crowd took to pelting the individual dressed as Santa Claus with hundreds of snow balls.

The Eagles fans also left their mark some years later during a 1999 NFL match with the Dallas Cowboys when one of the visiting players, Michael Irvin, suffered a serious neck injury. When Irvin was stretched off the field, however, the home fans cheered.

Consistently heckled
Garcia has history with US Open crowds, of course. In the 2002 US Open at Bethpage, Garcia was consistently heckled by the crowd due to the amount of time he took over the ball whilst waggling the club before hitting. His response then was to give the crowd the middle finger, which only served to encourage the crowds further.

“This is one of the great sporting towns in the country, they’re passionate about all sports . . . obviously, there’s not as many people as at Bethpage, but I think it will be just as loud and just as electric,” said Tiger Woods. “I’m sure we’ll hear them.”

No one will likely hear them louder than Garcia, whose comments at a players’ awards dinner before Wentworth brought accusations of racism. There, Steve Sands, of the Golf Channel, asked Garcia if he would have Woods over to dinner during the US Open. “We will have him around every night. We will serve fried chicken,” replied Garcia, in what was viewed as racially insensitive and had comparisons to a similar comment from former champion Fuzzy Zoeller at the 1997 US Masters.

Woods wasn’t amused. “The comment that was made wasn’t silly, it was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate,” responded the world number one.

On Monday, the two shook hands on the range here at Merion but, surprisingly, there was no personal verbal apology from Garcia to Woods. “I felt like it wasn’t the appropriate place to, for me to, out of respect to him and to the other players to do it there. So I was hoping to see him afterwards.

“I was hoping to meet him after the round but he was gone. Unfortunately when I got done practising, he was already gone, so I couldn’t see him,” said Garcia, who confirmed that he had written a note to Woods and left it beside his locker.

‘Read the note’
“Hopefully he can take a look at it. It’s a big week and I understand that it’s difficult to meet up. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that. If not, at least he has read the note and he’s happy with that.”

Garcia, though, wouldn’t divulge what he wrote in the note to Woods. “I don’t think that’s for me to say. The note is for him.”

Garcia admitted to feeling “a little bit nervous” about meeting Woods. “I’ve been very worried about the whole situation . . . I wish I could go back in time and take back what I said but, unfortunately, I said it.”

This latest incident involving Garcia is one of many which have cast a shadow over one of the game’s most popular players. In the 2007 WGC-CA at Doral, Garcia was caught spitting into the cup on the 13th hole during the third round after retrieving his ball from the hole.

“I think we all make mistake, don’t get me wrong. I’ve obviously made my fair share and you do regret your mistakes. But I think the most important thing from them is to learn, hopefully to make you a better person, hopefully you can handle things differently in the future. And I feel like I had a great relationship with the crowds for pretty much my whole career. Obviously a couple incidents here and there, but other than that, I feel very fortunate. I feel like they love me. I love them too. I respect them very much. Obviously you can’t please everyone, but I couldn’t be unhappy about the way I feel about the crowds.”

Only time will tell if Garcia gets a taste of his own medicine come tee time – off the 11th – in tomorrow’s first round, as he chases a maiden Major. It would be ironic if, here of all places, he managed to finally achieve that elusive goal.