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Garcia ready for first Skins Game

Spanish teenager Sergio Garcia, well mannered and respectful of his elders, still found it necessary to set Mark O'Meara straight.

"You're probably not even shaving yet," the 42-year-old O'Meara, 23 years Garcia's senior, said jokingly.

Garcia, looking rather proud, rubbed his chin and replied with a grin: "I started a few months ago."

Completing an impressive rookie year as a pro, Garcia joins O'Meara, David Duval and Fred Couples in the Skins Game this weekend.

O'Meara, a close pal of Tiger Woods, also has befriended Garcia, who finished second behind Woods at the PGA Championship and won three tournaments in Europe this year.

"I had played with Sergio before he turned professional and I saw the potential that he had," said O'Meara, who won the Skins Game last year with $430,000 in earnings over the two-day tournament.

"I think the way Sergio has played this year has been tremendous. He is playing maybe even better than Tiger did his first nine, 10 months as a professional golfer," added O'Meara, who nevertheless considers Woods presently in a class by himself as a player.

Couples also has high regard for Garcia, who at 19 is the youngest player ever in the Skins Game, one year and 11 days younger than Woods was his first time in the event.

Asked about playing with one of the best players in the world, who happens to be half his age, the 40-year-old Couples said: "I love it. I watch a lot of what Sergio does. I think it is remarkable. He does it in style."

"It's almost like the other players are intimidated by him, but he is not intimated by them," Couples added. "Tiger and Sergio are a lot more mature, ready to compete now than we were in the past. They don't have a lot of fear, and they can really play.

Couples is a replacement in the Skins Game for the late Payne Stewart.

Garcia, who freely shows his emotion on the course but is, like Woods, very poised, was flattered by the compliments from O'Meara and Couples.

"I feel like I'm on a cloud," Garcia said. "But it's only one year. I need to keep working hard and hopefully I will be up there for years."

American golf fans will see a lot of Garcia next year; he plans to play in 17 or 18 U.S. events in addition to about 14 in Europe.

He is looking forward to his first Skins Game.

"I've seen it a couple of times on television, and it's a little different," he said. "You kid and talk with the people, and you joke with your friends."

Couples, who has pledged any money he wins from the $1 million purse to the Payne Stewart Memorial and the First Orlando Foundation, is the all-time king of the event, with $1.3 million and 41 skins in the six tournaments he's played.

O'Meara's big payday in 1998 gave him $670,000 total in two appearances. Duval went away empty-handed last year, when he was a last-minute replacement for Couples, who withdrew because of the death of his father.

In the Skins format, the foursome plays nine holes Saturday and nine Sunday, with prize money at stake on each hole. A player wins the money if he wins the hole (the "skin") outright. But if two or more players tie a hole, all are considered tied and the money is carried over to the next hole, with the pot building until one player wins a hole.

The first six holes of the Skins Game, being played at the new Landmark Golf Club, will be worth $25,000 each, the next six holes $50,000 each, Nos. 13 through 17 $70,000 each, and No. 18 a "super skin" worth $200,000.