[ GOLF ]

El Niño’s father
here with seniors

Garcia takes time away
from teaching golf to compete
this week at Turtle Bay

By Cindy Luis

The love affair began early, when he was a teenager.

In a country that adores its pro soccer teams, bullfighters and cyclists, Victor Garcia was -- how do you say -- different. Garcia grew up caddying on the courses, los campos, of Spain.

And he never left. For the past 26 years, the 51-year-old Garcia has been the teaching pro at Club de Golf de Mediterraneo in Castellon, a small town some 4 miles away from the Mediterranean Sea on Spain's East Coast.

"I've always liked golf," said Garcia, who is competing in this week's Senior PGA Tour Turtle Bay Championship. "I like all sports and, of course, soccer. But golf ... it's my profession. I enjoy the teaching part of it."

His star pupil, youngest son Sergio, has learned well. Victor Garcia first took Sergio to the course at age 3; nine years later, the younger Garcia -- "El Niño" -- was club champion.

And then the youngest at age 14 to make the cut on the European Tour. And the youngest (15) to win the European Amateur Championship and then the Catalonian Open (17).

All together, there were 20 tournament titles for Sergio Garcia before he turned pro at age 19. Golf, his father always told him, will take you places.

Kailua's Larry Stubblefield will play in this weekend's Turtle Bay Championship. Stubblefield hits right handed (above right), except when putting (above left).

Victor Garcia knows from experience. He traveled the European Tour for two years (1973-74) before settling down with wife Consuelo Fernandez to raise a family and the level of golf in Spain.

These days, Garcia often travels to watch Sergio, on the PGA Tour, and daughter Mar, a sophomore on the University of Arizona women's golf team. And, when he can get an exemption, Garcia hits the senior pro circuit.

This week's Turtle Bay Championship will be his second Senior PGA Tour event. He also played in the Audi Senior Classic in Naucalpan, Mexico, last February, finishing 77th in the 78-man field at 240.

He hopes that this week's outcome will be closer to that of his son's finish last January. That's when he watched Sergio win the Mercedes Championships on the first hole of a playoff at Kapalua.

Garcia said that Turtle Bay, with its newly planted seashore paspalum grass Palmer Course, reminds him of Kapalua. But he also said that a few holes remind him of the harder ones on his Mediterraneo course.

"This course is difficult because of the winds," he said. "I thought No. 11 was complicated, with all the water. And No. 18, with the water on the right. It's a challenging course."

It's a beautiful course as well, he said, with the ocean and the ironwoods and mountains. His Mediterraneo course, known for its challenging greens, is in a valley surrounded by pine and carob trees.

"I prefer the mountains to the sea," he said. "But Hawaii is so beautiful with water so blue. I'm happy to be playing here. I don't play much (on the Tour) and I'm looking forward to this."

Also looking forward to playing this week is Kailua's Larry Stubblefield who, like Garcia, entered as one of the four sponsor's exemptions. Rex Caldwell and John Harris are the other two.

"I like the course and the new grass," said Stubblefield, inducted last year into the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame. "It's always nice to play at home. And it's a chance to catch up with some of the guys I played against in college."

Stubblefield, a four-year letterman at Ohio State (1969-72), has two victories locally this year. He teamed with Andrew Feldmann to win the Aloha Section PGA 4-Ball Match Play Championship and also the senior division of the AT&T Stroke-Play Championship.

"This week will be fun," said Stubblefield, who finished tied for 56th in this event last year. "But it's going to be windy as usual. I hear that there could be some winds coming up from the south. I don't think there's ever been a tournament played here with southerly winds. That could make things interesting."

Notes: This will be the first pro tournament anywhere to be played on paspalum grass, a new grass developed specifically for courses near salt water. ... Two-time defending Turtle Bay champion Hale Irwin, representing the Hokulia Golf Club in Kona, is the leading money winner on the senior circuit with $1,712,106. Stubblefield is 396th ($9,854) and Garcia is tied for 480th ($3,675). ... Dana Quigley will be playing in his 198th consecutive tournament, the longest streak on the Senior PGA Tour. ... Jim Thorpe has pulled out of this week's event and will be replaced by David Barr.

Senior golf

What: $1.5 million Senior PGA Tour Turtle Bay Championship
When: Tomorrow-Sunday. First tee time, 7:30 a.m.
Where: The Palmer Course at Turtle Bay, Kahuku
Who: 78 golfers, 54-hole stroke play, no cut.
TV: Tomorrow, PAX (Channel 27), 1-3 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, CNBC (Channel 39), noon to 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10 daily, $20 three-day pass. Free parking and shuttle service.

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