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'EL NINO' ON COURSE TO MAKE HISTORY

He was a golf champion way before he got his first pimple. He has an unforgettable nickname. He booms his drives 300 yards or more.

He is the latest "next Tiger" in the world of golf.

He is Sergio "El Nino" Garcia, and he lived up to his billing Wednesday as one of the favorites at the U.S. Amateur Championship.

Garcia, an 18-year-old Spaniard, blew past his first match-play opponent to reach the round of 32 at Oak Hill Country Club. He closed out Californian Ben Garner by taking a four-hole lead with three holes to play.

Garcia has compiled an amateur record unmatched in Spanish golf history, better even than that of Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal.

At age 14 he played in his first European Tour event and made the cut. At age 15 he became the youngest European Amateur champion in history.

At age 16 he played in the British Open, the youngest player to do so in the past 18 years. He so impressed Tom Lehman in that event that after Lehman won it, he handed the Claret Jug to Garcia and said, "Someday you will win this."

Last year, he won the Catalonia Open, a Spanish PGA event, by five shots. He won the Spanish Amateur by 10. He won one of the top French amateurs by 19.

This year he placed third at a Nike Tour event in Greensboro, N.C., won the European Amateur Masters, took the British Amateur and tied for 29th in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.

"He has more game than I had at the same age," said Olazabal.

"If things go right, he will become a great champion," said Ballesteros.

This week, Garcia can become only the fifth player to claim both the British and U.S. amateurs in the same year.

"Of course I've thought about that, but it's going to be difficult," said Garcia, who speaks fluent English. "There are a lot of great players."

Garcia could be headed for a showdown with the biggest name in the field, defending champion Matt Kuchar. They will meet in Friday's quarterfinals if they both survive two matches today.

Garcia currently is the No. 1-ranked amateur and Kuchar is No. 2, according to Golfweek magazine.

Garcia basically was raised on a golf course, located in Castellon, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. His father was the club pro and his mother ran the pro shop.

His nickname has nothing to do with the weather. The term El Nino -- the boy -- commonly is used in reference to the Christ child.

Garcia's trademark is long driving. Like Tiger Woods, he has an average build, at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. But his tremendous "lag" -- the angle of his clubshaft to his right arm on the downswing -- has been compared with that of Ben Hogan's. That's what creates power when the club is snapped through the ball.

Garcia said he probably will turn pro after he plays in the Masters next April.

He will start out on the European Tour, which he thinks should be an easier transition than Woods has faced.

"In Europe it's not like it is in the states," Garcia said. "Here, it's all Tiger. But in Europe, it's like . . . softer. You can be on all the newspapers, but it's not like everybody comes up to you. So it's less pressure."

Garcia faced little pressure Wednesday. He played the front nine in even-par 35 and held a three-hole lead. He lost the 11th hole when he marked his ball on the green, moved it over a few inches to accommodate a putt by Garner, then failed to move the mark back to the original spot for his putt. The penalty for the mistake was losing the hole. However, he sank a 16-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th then sealed the match with a par on the par-3 15th.

Most of the remaining big names made it through the first round of match play with the exception of top seed Joel Kribel, the runner-up to Kuchar last year.

Kribel had back luck in the pairings. The last of the 64 match-play qualifiers was Texas Christian University's J.J. Henry, who joined Kribel on the eight-man first-team All-America squad this year. Henry beat Kribel 2 and 1.

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