Mercurial bundles of fun are not exactly clogging up the fairways in the often far-too po-faced world of high-octane pro golf, but Sergio Garcia is the exception that sensationally underlines this general rule.
Sometimes, admittedly, the hyperactive Spaniard can go too far, but even then his obvious regret at some misdemeanour means that few of us can resist reaching out to forgive him. He might knock a bit of crockery off the old games top table from time to time, but he also offers large crumbs of comfort to those of us who often despair at the blandness on offer from many players.
The first time I came across his unique brand of sometimes-callow exuberance was during his first World Match Play at Wentworth nearly a decade ago. I had wandered out on to the West Course to watch him and caught up with his game at the 15th tee. As I watched he hit the sort of low, snapping hook I myself have perfected, his ball disappearing out of bounds.
Even the bloke whose job it is to shout You (are) the man was silent as we all considered what Sergio might do next. What he in fact did was to storm forward off the tee, cursing spectacularly in his native tongue and then kicking the ground in anger. Unfortunately his right shoe flew off as he did this, the spikes flying forward and missing a marshalls rather bald head by no more than, maybe, half an inch. There was an audible intake of breath by the watching punters and I made a mental note to ask him about this silliness later.
When I did, he placed his arm around my shoulder we had never met before and apologised. I forgave him immediately. Its been like this ever since.
Few European players ever have had the impact of Sergio Garcia upon the Ryder Cup. Seve certainly, Monty probably, but that is about it. Nick Faldo might have the record appearances and points stats locked away, but what we are talking about here is not just the way a man plays but the influence of his personality on the rest of the team. This, for Europe, has been vital in modern times.
Ballesteros started out sulking about the Ryder Cup, but then grew to love it and showered everyone else with his passion and commitment. Colin Montgomerie, too, found new ground to occupy during the old match weeks, his joy at competing (when he can blame someone else for defeat if necessary) lifting his game from the very good category to the improbably great.
Now the baton has been passed on to Garcia and, clearly, he relishes his role as part court jester, part assassin. We talked in high mid-summer this year about the coming matches in Kentucky and the now 28-year-old was as obviously enthused as ever when I asked him to consider the battle to come and tell me why he always enjoyed them so much and so very publicly too.
As ever, I felt the arm go round my shoulder, as he answered and his reply was a delight to hear. I just love it, really, really love it, he said as he curled his right fist for emphasis. Its so much fun and its just a great event to play in – and in front of those spectators. But its also a chance to get to know properly your colleagues.
Everybody opens up that week and that doesnt happen at a normal tournament when we are all trying to maintain a certain image maybe. Ive made a few really good friends because of the Ryder Cup and that is what I treasure most from these weeks. Guys like Jesper (Parnevik), Lee (Westwood) and Luke (Donald) have become close.
Feel the noise
Everyone, however, regards Garcia with affection when it comes to the Ryder Cup. Two years ago in Ireland I asked Robert Karlsson who made the most noise in Europes team room. The Swede laughed and said, Guess, before adding: The most noise is made by Sergio. He talks a lot, boy does he talk a lot. We listen a bit but, really, he is more the team entertainer. Hes just a big heap of energy swirling around the room. Most important thing is that he makes us all smile.
Another truth is that all the other team members love to take the mickey out of him. Yes, everyone rips him, but the warmth as they do so is as obvious as the barbs are sharp and, you know what, the team talisman responds with a big grin every time.
Montgomerie, too, has been embraced by Sergios style. Passion, thats the word for him, sheer, undiluted passion. Hes out of the same mould as Seve and Olazabal. He just lifts everyone on the course and in the locker room he is a bundle of energy and optimism. Terrific. Just terrific.
And then there is Westwoods opinion on his pal. Sergio is definitely the pulse of the team. He sets the pace as it builds up and boy does his pulse start to race. You learn a lot about people when you partner them at golf and what I found out about Sergio I liked.
These comments are typical and when relayed to the man himself they naturally brought an appreciative, rather shy, nod.
Having warmed him up it was time to throw the verbal equivalent of a bucket of very cold water at him; time to ask why on earth he spat into the hole after missing a short putt last year in America? It was then remains now a disgusting moment.
Reassuringly, he is hugely embarrassed at the memory, a split second of petulant impetuosity that had even his biggest supporters roaring their disapproval. He thinks for a few moments and then says quietly: I dont know why I did it. Frustration I guess. I wish I hadnt. Even as the spit was leaving my mouth, I was trying to take it back in. He makes a loud, sucking noise to emphasise his point as well as his embarrassment.
Wise old head
It was now time to throw in another hard question. Are you grown up now? At 28 are you at last a man? Well, yes, he thinks he is, that at times he feels like the oldest 28-year-old in the world. It is an understandable way to feel. Condemned to spend the acne years, and the ones that followed, in the glare of a relentless media spotlight, he has found it harder than many to make the seriously big step from rich kid to richer adult.
I believe, however, that he has made this move now. Perhaps that spitting incident has encouraged a swifter transition than otherwise would have happened. Sometimes, maybe, gobsmacking himself is a good thing in the end for troubled young men.
Thankfully, what also has changed is Garcias putting stroke. If the early part of this century was taken up with a series of wince-inducing regripping movements of his clubs, the last few have been filled with missed putts. This stroke remains fragile but is not the tattered thing it has been in the recent past.
His body language now when he stands over a testing five-footer is better, more confident. He says that compared to a year ago he knows he is putting better and he feels also that he is swinging better generally. A feeling that was helped enormously, of course, when he won the Players Championship in May, the so-called Fifth Major.
Because of the strength of that field, the difficulty of the course and conditions generally it really does feel like a Major to me, he insists. Victory obviously gave me a lot of confidence but its not like its the end. Youve always got to keep moving forward and improving. Overall, I feel like my game is as good as its ever been but, look, I dont feel like its complete or completed but I do feel like I am getting closer.
You know, for me my putting has to feel good and stable and after that it is confidence. Sometimes I stand over a four-foot putt and I cant see it going in and sometimes I stand over a 30-foot putt and I cant see it missing. This game is crazy. Or maybe its me.
No, Sergio, it is the game although, eventually, everybody is driven nuts by its delicate brutality. He says also that he appreciates what this loopy game has offered him but that he refuses to allow it to totally dominate his life. He envies Tiger Woods and the record he holds, but he does not envy his lifestyle and, I suspects, he would not wish to be as obsessive about everything.
For Garcia, life is for many things, not just golf. This may be true for Woods also but with the Spaniard it is easier to see this distinction between what he does for a living and what he does to enjoy life.
In golf I am always trying my hardest, sometimes that is good enough, sometimes not – but always it is what I can offer. But, really, you cant take it all too seriously. At the end of the day we who play this game for a living are very lucky not because we are paid very well but because we are doing something we love. People talk about the pressure we face and that is true but I would rather feel this pressure than have to be in an office looking at a computer screen 10 hours a day. Thats pressure.
This is the thought he will take with him on to the field of battle at Valhalla. Nervous he will be, fazed he wont. And, of course, he will be lippy and loud and boisterous and optimistic and up for the moment and ready to do whatever his team requires.
The reason for this is contained in one of his answers to my questions. It is there to be highlighted and savoured. It is in the moment he explained why he loved the Ryder Cup, it is the use of the simple phrase Its so much fun. Thats the sort of chap I would want on my side and this, the player lucky Europe has. This is Sergio Garcia. And he is fun!