PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — So much about Sergio Garcia looks the same as ever.
Setting up over a shot, he slowly releases his fingers from the grip and carefully replaces them in just the right position, checking himself one last time before unleashing a swing that made him of the best ball-strikers in golf.
So much about him is uncertain — mostly what’s in his heart.
When he missed the cut at the PGA Championship last August, the 31-year-old Spaniard took a 10-week break from golf to see if he could rediscover his enthusiasm for the game.
Garcia returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in seven months at the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook, which starts Thursday. He played four times on the European Tour late last year after his break and had mixed results. He played three times on the European Tour during its Middle East swing and had more of the same.
“I definitely feel like I want to be out there,” Garcia said. “So that always helps.”
He has a long road in front of him. It was only two years ago that Garcia rose to No. 2 in the world and had a chance to replace Tiger Woods atop the world ranking. Since then, it has been a steady drop all the way to No. 85.
One reason he waited until the middle of March to play his first U.S. tour event was because of his ranking. He no longer was eligible for the Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona for the top 64, or the Cadillac Championship last week at Doral for the top 50.
He’s in the Masters from winning The Players Championship three years ago.
Garcia attributes some of his malaise to splitting up two years ago with the daughter of Greg Norman, telling the Times of London later that year it was the first time he had ever truly been in love.
That’s about as far as Garcia goes in analyzing his passion for golf.
“It was a mix of things,” he said Wednesday after his pro-am round on the Copperhead course. “A couple of things off the golf course didn’t help. And then I just started playing not great. Knowing how I can play and what I’m capable of doing, I don’t like to settle for less.
“So I guess a mix of those things kind of pulled down a little bit,” he said. “But we are looking forward to it now.”
To what degree? Only he knows.
Garcia last won a tournament in the Castello Masters toward the end of the 2008 season. He missed the Ryder Cup last year for the first time in his career, although he was at Celtic Manor as a vice captain. Since then, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer have gone to No. 1, with Graeme McDowell, Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy poised to challenge for the top.
How badly does Garcia want to be part of that mix?
“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.”
He is part of a strong field at Innisbrook, which includes the No. 1 player for the first time since 2005. Kaymer will be playing in the opening two days with Bubba Watson and Nick Watney, who is coming off a big win last week at Doral.
Garcia is in another feature group with Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old Italian whose career is similar to Garcia’s in so many ways. Manassero became the youngest British Amateur champion when he won at age 15. Two months later, he tied for 13th in the British Open at Turnberry while playing the first two rounds with Tom Watson.
Garcia first starting playing the PGA Tour as a teenager who didn’t even have a driver’s license. Ditto for Manassero, who is still a year away from taking driving lessons in Italy.
Last year, Manassero became the youngest winner in European Tour history — winning on Garcia’s home course, of all things.
“I’ve always been a fan of him,” Manassero said. “He’s a great guy and he’s a fantastic golf player. And he’s had a bad moment, but definitely you can see — everybody can see — he’s coming out of this moment. I definitely want him to get back to winning golf tournaments and to get back as he was.”
Garcia tied for ninth in the Qatar Masters, then got thrown right into it a week later when he was paired with Woods, his old nemesis, in the final round at Dubai. Both struggled in the wind and tied for 20th.
“As you gain a bit of confidence, it kind of helps,” he said. “There’s nothing better than confidence for your mental game. When you are feeling confident, you don’t think about things. You just kind of do them. I think as we keep getting better and better, that will happen.”
Garcia is not in a big hurry to get back to where he feels he belongs — the elite in golf. By age 30, he already had 18 wins around the world and played on five Ryder Cup teams. He has been runner-up in three majors, including the PGA Championship at 19.
For a guy who is 31, Garcia must feel as though he’s been around forever.
Now, the goal is to feel like a kid again.