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Garcia ready to lead Ryder Cup charge

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Except for the freckles and playful grin, it's a wonder anyone recognizes Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup.

The Spaniard, who can't seem to make a 4-foot putt with a major championship on the line, can't seem to miss from 20 feet when playing for a golf trophy he has to share.

Garcia is considered the best player to never win a major. For one week every two years, he is simply the best.

There are no excuses at the Ryder Cup, only celebrations.

'He brings a lot of passion to this team. When you see Sergio, you see Seve,' European captain Nick Faldo said Tuesday, referring to Seve Ballesteros, Garcia's countryman and former Ryder Cup star. 'They love this event. Obviously, match play is different, isn't it? And he gets fired up. He's great off the golf course. So he's a key member to the team.'

Garcia has never lost in eight alternate-shot matches, and the only U.S. team to beat him in fourballs was Tiger Woods and Davis Love III. Garcia is 6-1 against Woods and Phil Mickelson in team matches.

Even more astounding is a 14-4-2 record in his four Ryder Cup appearances.

'If you had to pick one guy out as the toughest test, that you would say is the guy to beat, I'd have to pick Sergio,' Jim Furyk said.

And make no mistake - the Americans would love nothing more than to beat him.

Garcia has proven to be the best at hitting pivotal shots and holing clutch putts. He also has become the best at getting under the Americans' skin.

The exuberance began in 1999 when he was 19, the youngest player in Ryder Cup history. Garcia spent the week shaking his fists and leaping into the arms of Jesper Parnevik. Then came 2002, when he sprinted down the 18th fairway and mobbed Pierre Fulke in the middle of his match with Love, forcing the Swede to stop and call it a draw.

Two years ago, Europe bolted to a 10-6 lead and was headed for another blowout victory. Garcia was 4-0 that week, and the Americans jokingly told Stewart Cink he would be locked out of the room if he didn't beat the Spaniard.

'No one had to tell me that,' Cink said.

Cink built a big lead early, then closed him out with two long putts.

'I think it angered him,' Cink said. 'I heard him muttering. I would have been muttering, too.'

Maybe it's his constant chattering that makes Garcia so annoying. Remember, this is the guy who last time said, 'Nothing is sweeter than beating the Americans.' Perhaps it's the fiery celebrations after winning a hole, even if he wasn't the one who sank the putt.

Above all, it's the fact he keeps winning.

'He's a heck of a player,' Cink said. 'He loves the Ryder Cup. He enjoys it so much, going head to head. Does he get under our skin? Only because he wins a lot.'

Some Americans felt the same way about Ballesteros, the spiritual leader of the European team since his debut in 1979. Even with five majors, Ballesteros bled for the Ryder Cup.

'Sergio is one of the most passionate players that Europe has ever had,' U.S. captain Paul Azinger said. 'I just feel like he elevates somehow. He putts different. He putts better. Ask him why he makes so many putts.'

The frightening aspect for the United States is that Garcia is playing better than ever.

No, he still doesn't have a major. His latest opportunity ended at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championship when he lost a three-shot lead on the back nine and gave up the lead for good by missing a 4-foot putt on the 17th. In May, he won The Players Championship. His swing has never been more pure, and he keeps convincing himself he's better with the putter than people realize.

As for annoying the Americans?

Garcia acted as though he didn't understand the question, but the sneaky grin told otherwise.

'In which way? Because I play well?' he said as the room erupted in laughter. 'Sorry. What can I say? I'm trying as hard as everybody else. So I guess I've just been lucky.'

This from a guy who complained that 'I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field' after Padraig Harrington beat him in a playoff at Carnoustie in the British Open last year.

But that was for him. What makes him such an invaluable Ryder Cup player is that it's all about team.

'I've always said it, and I say it from the bottom of my heart,' Garcia said. 'I would rather go 0-5 and win the Ryder Cup as a team than go 5-0 and lose it. It's not about me this week. It's about the European team, and coming together, and achieving our goal, and obviously playing well and retaining the cup. That's all that matters to me.'

Garcia didn't waste any time mixing it up.

Faldo pulled his troops together on the first tee for an impromptu meeting, wanting them to visualize the opening tee shot. Garcia was among the first to chime in, calling it a great start to the week as Europe goes after its fourth straight victory.

It was the first full day of practice - after the team photos, of course - and Garcia spent the day with Ryder Cup rookie Soren Hansen and Lee Westwood, with whom he has teamed to go 4-1-1.

The Americans went out in foursomes, with Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes whipping up their home state crowd, especially on the 352-yard 13th. Most players went to a forward tee with a 268-yard carry to the island green. Holmes, the biggest basher at Valhalla this week, drove onto the green from the back tee.

'I just can't imagine what Tiger Woods puts up with all the time, and for one week in my life, I feel like him,' Perry said. 'It was awesome. I grinned the whole time. I had a blast out there.'

It's usually fun during the three days of practice. The matches start Friday, and that's when it typically changes.

The Americans have not led after any session on any day since they last won the Ryder Cup in 1999 at Brookline, rallying from a 10-6 deficit. The pivotal singles victory that afternoon was Furyk beating Garcia.

And that might be the one area where Garcia is lacking. Out on his own, his lone singles victory was in 2004 against Mickelson. Still, the image of Garcia that day is running through the crowd with a European flag.

His team won, and that's all that counts. Nothing is sweeter than beating the Americans.