A majority of the 48 LIV Golf League members have never seen Real Club Valderrama until this week. But one player does have extensive history here: 15 tournament starts, finishing inside the top 10 on all but one occasion.
Oh, and he’s won three times.
If ever one player had a significant advantage over the rest of the field in terms of course knowledge and track record, it would be Sergio Garcia at Valderrama, the host site for LIV Golf Andalucía.
“Yeah, we’re all playing for second place,” joked his Fireballs GC teammate Carlos Ortiz on the eve of Friday’s first round.
Of course, golf is not that cut-and-dried. Advantages don’t always translate into wins. Prior success is no guarantee of future performance. Form can change, weather can become a factor, other players can get hot.
Still, it’s Garcia on his favourite course. He’s an honorary member here and the unofficial host. He’ll enjoy the largest galleries and the loudest support. It will likely make a difference on both the individual and team leaderboards. The Fireballs have an advantage that the other 11 teams can’t match.
“The only disadvantage is probably not having Sergio on the team,” said fellow League captain Joaquin Niemann of Torque GC. “I think he’s showed how good he’s played during the years in Valderrama, how his game fits on this golf course.
“But I think there is so many ways to play this golf course that it doesn’t matter how — there’s not one way to do it. I think you can find your own way and stick to it, be confident around here, and just do your golf shots.”
The question really becomes: How much of an advantage? Valderrama is not an easy course. Players respect it as one of the world’s best courses, but it can also be unforgiving. Another previous winner on the course, Graeme McDowell of Cleeks GC, once acknowledged his “love-hate relationship” with the course.
“I love how special a place it is,” he said several years ago, “but hate how tough it can be.”
Garcia has embraced all of it. That Valderrama forces you to think, forces you to utilize all 14 clubs in the bag. And that if the wind is up, low scores can be non-existent.
Garcia has won twice shooting 12 under, and once at 6 under. In one of the three times he’s been a runner-up, he shot 1 under. And the only time he’s finished outside the top 10, he shot 17 over (a T34 result in 2007).
Yes, he knows the course, but he’s taking nothing for granted this week.
“You may say that I do have a little bit of an advantage because of the number of times that I’ve played here; that it’s my favourite golf course in the world and I love it,” the 43-year-old Spanish star said. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to standing over the tee shots and the second shots and the putts and trusting it and pulling actually the right shot.
“This course is the kind of course that if you’re playing well, it gives you opportunities, but if you’re a little bit off, then it’s a struggle to save par. You still have to play really, really well. “
Even so, Garcia’s course knowledge not only is a plus for his own fate this week, it should by extension be a positive for his Fireballs GC teammates.
“Obviously, it helps to have Sergio on the team,” said fellow Spaniard Eugenio Chacarra, who considers Garcia not only a mentor but his second father. “Everybody will want Sergio, not just this week but pretty much every week. We are happy to have him, and hopefully he can win, he can have a good week and if that happens, I know our chances are high.”
Last summer, Ortiz – born in Mexico but now living in the U.S. – travelled to Spain and hung out with Chacarra, a native of Madrid. The two spent a couple of weeks together and played Valderrama multiple times. What did they learn?
“You just have to play really well, or you’re going to have a tough time,” Ortiz said. “You can’t fake it around here.”
Meanwhile, the fourth member of the Fireballs – Abraham Ancer of Mexico – had never seen the course until this week. That puts him in the same predicament as most others in the field.
Unlike those others, he’ll be able to benefit from Garcia’s tutelage and insight.
“I definitely talked to Abraham a lot about coming here, and he was very anxious to know things about Valderrama because he knew that he was going to love it, and I think it’s a course that sets up great for him and we’re excited to see all of us play well,” Garcia said.
Ancer realizes Garcia’s course management at Valderrama may not be an exact blueprint for his own game. For instance, Garcia is a longer hitter off the tee, so different landing zones could dictate a strategy adjustment.
“Like, there’s some holes that he might be a little more aggressive than I am just because there are many trees that we need to carry for you to take that line that maybe I just can’t pull off,” Ancer said.
“But it’s just every hole, you can be very aggressive, or you can be very conservative, and I feel like … maybe some of the par 3s, I think pretty much all of them, I’m trying to remember – which one is the one with, I think it’s 6?”
“6, with the little tier,” Garcia jumped in, referring to the 173-yard hole, the shortest par 3 on the course.
“6, we talked about that one,” Ancer continued. “They have some really sketchy pin placements that can happen, and if it gets firm, there are some spots that you can’t miss it. Mainly we talked about that. Some spots, how to attack and when you see this pin placement, you can’t really go at it. Stuff like that.”
It’s stuff like that which could very well make a difference this week. The Fireballs already have one team victory this season and would dearly love to join Torque as two-time winners in 2023 in hopes of eventually securing a top-four spot in the team standings and a bye for the first round of the Team Championship.
As for Garcia, there would be nothing more fitting than to celebrate his first individual victory in LIV Golf here at Valderrama. But the course is not going to simply hand over the trophy to its favourite son this week without a proper test.
“History is always nice,” Garcia said, “but it doesn’t mean that I’m starting 6-under par and the rest are starting even.”