Just for a while there, Sergio Garcia actually had it pretty good; back in form, contending on Sundays and holding the sympathetic vote in an edgy little rivalry with the best player in the business. And then, with a pair of ill-chosen words, it all changed.
Garcia took his ongoing verbal joust with Tiger Woods way out of bounds at an awards dinner for the European Tour on Tuesday, foolishly joking that he would invite the world No.1 around for dinner during the U.S. Open and saying, "We will serve fried chicken." An immediate and seemingly genuine apology was issued but not in time to prevent everything from having shifted.
The Spaniard's words took a soap opera founded on mutual dislike, but one that was amusing, entertaining and occasionally childish, down a thorny path littered with racist undertones that golf wants no part of.
In a split second he ensured that his part in the pantomime is now most certainly that of villain, and those who sympathised with him in his dispute with Woods will now rapidly scatter.
"What seemed to be a funny question, and I tried to give a funny answer – it came out totally wrong," Garcia said Wednesday in what amounted to his second apology. "I want to make sure everybody knows I'm very, very sorry. I can't apologise enough times.
"As soon as I left the dinner, I started getting a sick feeling in my body. I didn't really sleep at all. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body. I've had this sick feeling all day. Difficult to hit a shot all day."
The Tiger and Sergio Show began in earnest during the second round of The Players Championship, with Garcia complaining he had been distracted by crowd noise excitement caused by Woods pulling a club out of his bag while he was about to swing.
Tit-for-tat exchanges in news conferences, post-round interviews and television segments followed, with Garcia describing Woods as "not the nicest guy on tour" and Woods responding with a blunt "no" when asked if there was a reconciliation between the pair in the works.
Yet aside from the Tiger diehards – those lovable souls who choke at the mere hint of a suggestion that the world's greatest golfer might not be the cuddliest of characters – Garcia seemed to have many observers on his side.
Garcia's portrayal of Woods as an arrogant and aloof opponent who cares little for his peers did ring somewhat true, and the simmering tension injected a dash of spice into the sometimes vanilla world of top level golf. Furthermore, there was that nagging sense that as long as this spat continued, Garcia might be able to channel it to help him play better, maintain his strong start to the season and bring him bounding up the world rankings.
With a game built on confidence, Garcia has never shied away from hostile obstacles and some of hisfinest hours have come in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Ryder Cup.
With each fresh outburst or snub, the rivalry – one that stretches back nearly a decade and a half to when a teenage Garcia gave eventual champion Woods a fright on the final day of the 1999 PGA Championship – drew in a few more souls whose interest in the game is normally reserved only for the majors.
There is nothing like playground histrionics from two leading stars to engage the audience in the gap between the Masters and the summer showpieces. Having two strong characters make no secret whatsoever about the fact they have no time for the other carried delicious appeal.
But then Garcia went and blew it with a moment of idiocy that turned him into a cautionary tale and gifted him membership to the Fuzzy Zoeller School of Inappropriate Speech (Hon. President Steve Williams).
Garcia, who doesn't have Woods' phone number, reached out to Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg.
"I would love to talk to him as soon as possible and make sure everything is OK," Garcia explained.
It matters not that the apology swiftly arose from Garcia’s own free will and reflection and not as a response to a public outcry.
Or that Garcia had the class not to try to hide behind the pitiful excuse of "cultural differences" that his countrymen on the Spanish basketball team used when defending a slant-eyed gesture they made ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Because it is too late. Woods is now the victim, the one with the sympathy. And the one with the last laugh.
"The comment that was made wasn't silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate …" Tiger said via Twitter. "I'm confident that there is real regret that the remark was made."
For a player once seen as having unlimited promise, it must already hurt Garcia enough to compare his career, devoid of a single major title, with that of 14-time major winner and 78-time tournament victor Woods.
Garcia’s confidence is always prone to disappear at a moment’s trigger, and the scrutiny that will inevitably follow this furor could be enough to halt the momentum that had been building nicely through seven top-20 finishes and four top-10s in the eight PGA starts to date in 2013.
Notwithstanding the fact, of course, that even that run pales in comparison to Woods' four victories on the year, his return to the top spot in the sport and now even the moral high road from which to peer down on Garcia.
Suddenly it is not so much fun being Sergio Garcia any more, and it is entirely of his own making.