Sergio Garcia Should Go Down As One of Europe’s Best

11 Aug 1999: Sergio Garcia smiles at Tiger Woods as they walk together during the PGA Championships at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois.
11 Aug 1999: Sergio Garcia smiles at Tiger Woods as they walk together during the PGA Championships at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois. /

Sergio Garcia is still building his legacy, but there’s no doubt he’ll go down as one of Europe’s all time greats.

Despite the fact that Sergio Garcia has not won more European Tour tournaments than Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie or Nick Faldo, he should go down in golf history as one of the best players ever to come out of Europe.  The reasons are complicated, but simple. He was a beneficiary of rules changes by both the PGA Tour to accommodate the better players. And he lived up to the promise, playing a heavy schedule on both sides of the Atlantic to keep within the rules.

From the year he turned professional, Garcia played and won against the deeper fields on the PGA Tour, and has continued to do so for nearly 20 years, more so than anyone else from across the Atlantic except Rory McIlroy.  However, Garcia has more total victories, and one more European Tour title, although realistically, McIlroy will likely overtake him in time, simply due to their age differences.

Importantly, when evaluating Garcia’s record, it is significant that he played against Tiger Woods in Woods’ prime and Garcia’s prime, while McIlroy played infrequently against Woods when he first turned professional in 2007.  By the time McIlroy joined the PGA Tour, after his U.S. Open victory, Woods’ various injuries were catching up to him. There would never be a McIlroy /Woods match up, but there were at least two Garcia/ Woods battles.

Now Garcia probably began his professional career with the idea of playing in Europe.  But he joined the PGA Tour at age 19 after becoming the surprising challenger to Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship.  His second-place finish gave him enough in earnings to join the Tour the following season.  Since 2000, he has lived up to his membership requirements. In 2001, he played 15 PGA Tour events, and he has played between 16 and 21 tournaments on the PGA Tour except for 2014 and 2015, when he played 15.

At the same time, Garcia continued to support the European Tour where he is currently No. 2 on the Race to Dubai points list.  He was a star on the European Ryder Cup teams, playing in every one since 1999.   Between 1999 and 2016, he played between 11 and 18 European Tour events each season.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that the majors and WGC events count on both tours now, and the current regulations on both the U.S. and European Tour him to do that. It also allows both tours to keep their star power on the roster.

Garcia versus the “Ballesteros Rule”

Garcia’s ability to play on both sides of the ocean was because of several rules changes made by the PGA Tour.  They did not come easily.

More than fifteen years before Garcia emerged, there was a highly publicized battle between one of Europe’s best, Ballesteros, and the PGA Tour regarding the number of tournaments each thought necessary for foreign golfers to play to enjoy PGA Tour privileges.  Ballesteros was a big deal. At the time he traded world No. 1 ranking with his contemporaries Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman. He won the European Order of Merit six times from 1976 to 1991.   He thought the ideal number of PGA Tour events was 12.

No matter what Ballesteros said, the PGA Tour was not moved. According to the New York Times, in 1984, the PGA Tour passed a new regulation on the number of PGA Tour events that had to be played. The number was 15.  I remember when the golf community called it the Ballesteros Rule.

It got to the point that Ballesteros was even banned from all but one event on the PGA Tour in 1984 and all but two in 1986.

Discussions continued for another few years, with the PGA Tour not budging.

Seve Ballesteros Sergio Garcia
(Photo by Don Morley/Getty Images) /

In those days, foreign players who did not want to get a PGA Tour card and play 15 PGA Tour events were restricted to playing in five PGA Tour events plus The Players and the World Series of Golf, now the WGC Bridgestone.  The majors did not count in those numbers, and so a foreign player, if he could get exemptions, could play 10 times a year in the U.S. if he qualified.

Then in 1995, the PGA Tour decided to make some changes.  They bumped up the number of tournaments a foreign player could play on the PGA Tour to seven, plus The Players and the WGC-Bridgestone, as long as they met the minimum number of tournaments on their home circuits to maintain membership or to be listed on their Order of Merit.  Majors were still not considered in that list.  That meant golfers from outside the U.S. could have played in nine events and the three U.S. majors, if eligible, for a total of 12 events in the U.S., without taking up PGA Tour membership.

Garcia had he chosen to do so, could have taken that path and played primarily in Europe and still played 12 times each year on the PGA Tour. But he elected to jump into the deep end against deeper fields and against Tiger Woods in his prime.

Garcia’s American success didn’t take him away from his beginnings

Two years after Garcia joined the PGA Tour, it got easier for foreign players.   In 2002 the number of events that a non-member could play on the PGA Tour changed to 12, and “events” were any tournament that offered official money – now FedEx points– with a maximum of seven sponsor exemptions.  That 12 included majors.  There was still a home circuit requirement of 10 events, with a maximum of five sponsor exemptions.

Finally, in 2012 the home circuit rule was dropped.  The number of events for non-members stayed the same, 12 with maximum sponsor exemptions upped to seven.

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Garcia was perhaps the first real beneficiary of the battle that Ballesteros fought. Fortunately, he delivered.  His first victories in the U.S. were in his second season, two of them 2001, at the age of 21. Now he has 10 U.S. titles in total, the most recent being the 2017 Masters.

Yet, Garcia is loyal to his home country and his original tour.  He has not forgotten his European roots.  A few weeks ago he was host of the Andalucía Valderrama Masters.  To show he still has it,  he won it, giving him 14 titles in Europe. His total number of professional worldwide victories is 32 including five in Asia and three in South Africa.

Because Garcia was such an early wunderkind, it is not a surprise that he has been able to succeed on multiple continents.  But just because he has chosen to play most of his career against deeper and stronger fields than his compatriots in other countries, he cannot be overlooked as one of the best players ever to have come from the continent of Europe and Spain.  Who knows how many he would have won had he remained in Europe all these years.

(All information regarding numbers of PGA Tour events for non-members came from a helpful spokeswoman at the PGA Tour.)

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