The last time we saw Sergio Garcia play golf in the United States was at the PGA Championship last August. He shot rounds of 78-69 at Whistling Straits that week to miss the cut and promptly announced he was going to take a sabbatical from the game.
The reason? Garcia, who had been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world just 18 months before, simply wasn't enjoying himself anymore. The seven-time TOUR champ missed contending, and the proud Spaniard didn't like the mediocrity that had come to mark his game.
"Obviously a couple of things off the golf course didn't help," Garcia acknowledged Wednesday, alluding to an emotional break-up with a long-time love. "And then I just started playing not great and ... knowing how I can play and what I'm capable of doing, I don't like to settle for less.
"So for me to go to a week and then finish 30th or 40th, if my game is not showing up, it doesn't really make a difference. So I guess a mix of those things kind of pulled me down a little bit. But we are looking forward to it now."
Now is the Transitions Championship, a tournament Garcia has played two times previously with limited success. He's always liked the Copperhead Course, though -- "I think it's a great tournament, a very, very good, challenging golf course," Garcia said -- and the week's forecast of abundant sunshine and temperatures in the 80s can't be beat.
Besides, it's time.
"I definitely feel like I want to be out there," Garcia said outside the scoring trailer at the ninth green after his pro-am. "... I can do better but at least if you're looking forward to it, it helps."
Garcia started his 2011 campaign over on the European Tour in the Middle East. He tied for ninth in Qatar -- one shy of his top-10 total for all of last year -- and was one stroke off the lead through three rounds at the Dubai Desert Classic before falling to a tie for 20th with a 75.
While not necessarily up to his former standards, Garcia's performance was encouraging.
"I think that I saw a lot of good things in the Middle East, a lot of good rounds, some good improvements overall in the whole game," he said. "So it feels good. It's just a matter of kind of getting back into it and getting through the motions, get through those times where it's a little bit tougher where the pressure is on and stuff like that."
But the 2008 PLAYERS champ has fallen to No. 85 in the world, so he wasn't eligible for the two World Golf Championships played in the last three weeks. Prior to this season, Garcia had only missed one of those elite events in nine years. He's eligible for the Masters, but has yet to qualify for the season's other three majors -- and in another telling statistic, he hasn't missed one of those since 1999.
So the schedule, like the game, is a "work in progress," the 31-year-old Garcia says. He is playing in next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, though, and he's looking forward to seeing in competition what the last month of practice has reaped.
"It's going to be quite a long run now," Garcia said. "We started a bit late this year, so it's a little bit more condensed."
Since he regrouped late last year, the golf world had changed dramatically. Tiger Woods is no longer the world No. 1; Martin Kaymer, a 26-year-old German, is. Garcia's good friend Luke Donald has risen to No. 3. Teenagers like Matteo Manassero of Italy, one of his playing partners in the first two rounds, are showing the same kind of promise Garcia once did.
So the sabbatical was not without its soul-searching. Garcia knows his friends and the game's up-and-coming stars have performed and been rewarded. He knows he has to do the same thing to join them in the upper echelon again.
"To tell you the truth, I just want to be out there and just want to enjoy playing," Garcia said. "And hopefully just play better as I get on. Whatever happens, happens. I know what I'm capable of doing. But that doesn't mean that, you know, I'm looking at it thinking, I should be there, I should be there. I don't see it that way.
"They are out there because they have played well, because they deserve it, and the only way I'm going to get back up there is doing the same thing."
Garcia's interview Wednesday was not without its lighter moments. The man-child who once scissor-kicked his way down the fairway at Medinah as he dueled Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA aknowledged the passion was still there, but added "I'm 31. I save my jumps for other things."
And asked whether the shortcomings were more mental or physical, he protested "Physical? Am I getting fat or something?" At the same time, he acknowledged the missing link just might be confidence. And he knows from experience that a little can go a long way.
"When you are feeling confident, you don't think about things, you just kind of do them," Garcia said. "I think as we keep getting better and better, that will happen."