Sergio Garcia apologized to Tiger Woods for saying he would serve fried chicken if they were to have dinner at the U.S. Open, an ugly addition to nearly two weeks of verbal sparring.
What had been a celebration of European golf at an awards dinner south of London shifted suddenly to a racially sensitive moment involving Woods, the No. 1 golfer in the world and the only player of African-American heritage on the PGA Tour.
Garcia said he meant to give a funny answer to a playful question, and it turned out to be "totally stupid and out of place."
"I feel sick about it and I feel truly, truly sorry," he said Wednesday from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, site of the European Tour’s flagship event.
The two golfers have exchanged barbs the last 11 days, dating to the third round of The Players Championship when Garcia implied that Woods purposely stirred up the gallery as the Spaniard was playing a shot. Woods said it was not surprising that Garcia was complaining.
Garcia and his Ryder Cup teammates were at a dinner Tuesday night when the emcee, Golf Channel’s Steve Sands, jokingly asked Garcia if he would have Woods over for dinner during the U.S. Open.
"We’ll have him round every night," Garcia replied. "We will serve fried chicken."
The remark was reminiscent of Fuzzy Zoeller’s similar comment about Woods during his record-setting victory in the 1997 Masters, where Woods became the first player of black heritage to win a major.
Garcia issued a statement through the European Tour after the dinner that did not mention Woods by name. He apologized "for any offense that may have been caused" by answering the question with a "silly remark."
"But in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner," the statement said.
Woods responded Wednesday morning with a series of tweets that said: "The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate. I’m confident that there is real regret the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf."
That was one thing upon which both players finally agreed.
Garcia held an impromptu news conference at Wentworth to elaborate on his statement.
"I want to also apologize to my Ryder Cup teammates who were there last night for taking the shine away from a wonderful event, and finally and foremost, I want to apologize to Tiger and to anyone I could have offended," he said. "I felt very sick about it and feel really bad, and just hope to settle things down and move on."
Garcia said he left a voicemail for Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent at Excel Sports, because he doesn’t have a phone number for Woods. Steinberg did not immediately respond to an email to confirm he received the call, or if Woods planned to call Garcia.
"I would love to talk to them as soon as possible and make sure that everything is OK, tell them how sorry I am and obviously it was a bad comment that shouldn’t have been said," Garcia said.
The reference to fried chicken, a stereotype as a favorite food among blacks, first surfaced when Woods was emerging as golf’s biggest star. He was on his way to a record score and a 12-shot win at Augusta National in ’97 when Zoeller, who grew up in southern Indiana, spoke of his performance that week.
"So you know what you guys do when he gets in there? Pat him on the back, say congratulations, enjoy it, and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?" Zoeller said. And then he added as he walked away, "Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."
The remark followed Zoeller, a popular two-time major champion, for the rest of his career and cost him major endorsements.
Garcia’s main sponsor is TaylorMade-adidas, which issued a statement Wednesday that his comment "was offensive and in no way aligns with TaylorMade-adidas Golf’s values and corporate culture.
"We have spoken with Sergio directly and he clearly has regret for his statement and we believe he is sincere," the statement said. "We discussed with Sergio that his comments are clearly out of bounds and we are continuing to review the matter."
Garcia said he was unaware of Zoeller’s comments because he was only 17 at the time. Even so, it was a peculiar choice of words for a player who has lived in Spain his entire life, though the 33-year-old has been a PGA Tour member since he was 20.
Even as the game has grown in international popularity, and Woods has gone from something of a curiosity as an African-American star to one of the best players of all time, he has occasionally endured racially insensitive remarks.
At an awards night for caddies in Shanghai in November 2011, his former caddie received an award for best TV interview. Steve Williams, who had been fired by Woods in the summer of 2011, was on the bag for Adam Scott when he won at Firestone. Williams said in a CBS interview that it was "the best win of my life."
When he received the mock award, Williams said of the interview, "It was my aim to shove it right up that black a——."
He apologized to Woods the next week at the Australian Open.
Five years ago, Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman and analyst Nick Faldo were discussing possible challengers to Woods when Faldo suggested the players gang up on him.
"Lynch him in a back alley," Tilghman replied.
Tilghman and Woods are friends, and she apologized to him immediately. Woods came to her defense, saying there was no ill intent. Tilghman was suspended for two weeks.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and European Tour chief executive George O’Grady were at the awards dinner Tuesday night. O’Grady said in a statement that he and Finchem spoke to Garcia after his pro-am round at Wentworth.
"Sergio expressed very deep and sincere regret for his unguarded and, in his own words, ‘stupid’ remark and we are also aware of his statement of apology," O’Grady said. "Following our meeting, we have accepted his full apology and we consider the matter closed."
PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw said the tour would not be commenting on the public feud between two marquee players.
Their dispute has been yet another difficult moment in a PGA Tour season filled with them, from Vijay Singh suing the tour after he was cleared of an anti-doping violation to the tour’s opposition to a new rule that outlaws the putting stroke used by four of the last six major champions.
Anything involving Woods always draws attention, though it’s rare to have two high-profile players exchange barbs through the media.
"I can’t believe it’s lasted this long," Matt Kuchar said from the Colonial. "I think everybody’s shaking their heads. It’s over two weeks ago now, and it just seems to be drawing out too far, and unfortunately people just won’t let it go. It’d be nice for it to go away.
"I think the game is in great shape," he said. "We don’t need what’s going on between Tiger and Sergio. It’s kind of too bad it’s dragged out this far."
Tim Herron added, "The issue’s not even golf. It’s about their character and whatever. Get over it, we’re out of junior high and high school. Just go play golf."
Garcia is not expected to run into Woods until the U.S. Open at Merion outside Philadelphia, where the Spaniard is not sure what kind of reception he will receive — from Woods, the other players and especially the gallery. The New York gallery at Bethpage Black in 2002 heckled him for constantly gripping his club, and at one point Garcia showed them his middle finger. The gallery at Merion, a private club, will be half of what it was at the public Bethpage track on Long Island.
Garcia said he hoped this might lead to an improved relationship with Woods.
"Like I said before, I am terribly sorry for what happened and I am sure we can talk soon and I can apologize to him face-to-face, and move forward and forget about the whole thing," he said.