AUGUSTA, Ga. — It didn’t come easy because nothing ever has at Augusta National for Sergio Garcia, but it came at last yesterday evening on the 73rd hole of the 81st Masters. Redemption. Resurrection. Victory over himself more than over a foe.
Since he first burst onto the golf world as a bounding, infectious 19-year-old leaping like a fawn and sprinting down the fairway trying to run down a Tiger named Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, García always has come up just short. Short of other peoples’ expectations. Short of his own expectations. Short of the long shadow of his boyhood idols in Spain, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, who both won green jackets multiple times and encouraged him to do the same.
He was 0-for-73 in majors and thus owner of the title nobody in golf wants but a number of true greats had to wear. He was “the best player never to win a major.”
In what became a 19-hole, match-play battle with his friend and Ryder Cup teammate Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia’s moment finally arrived on the greatest golf course in the world. It felt right and just when it did.
Actually it came several times during the course of a long day of heightened pressure, blown leads, comebacks, a missed putt to win and then, at last, a roar he thought he’d never hear. It came and then it went and it came and went a second time on the 72nd hole, as many people who had seen him fail before expected.
Just 10 years ago, he’d lipped out a putt on the final hole at Carnoustie, costing himself the British Open. Yesterday, he sent a winning putt right by the hole on 18, its refusal to break left as it had all week a mocking suggestion it was never going to happen for him.
And then, it did. He and Rose stood knotted and mentally exhausted at 9-under-par 279. They would have to trudge back to the tee on 18 and repeat what they’d just done. Do it until somebody snapped or the moon rose high enough to make them return today.
This time it took one hole and it was not Garcia who buckled. It was Rose. His drive went way right, took a lucky bounce into the pine straw but left him with no second shot. He punched out and hoped for the best.
That’s what Garcia gave him, ripping his drive and then knocking his approach shot to within 10 feet of the pin. Rose tried to pressure Garcia one last time, as he’d done for two days, but he was left with too long a putt for par and missed, meaning Garcia had two chances from 10 feet to win his first Masters in 19 tries.
He needed only one before the young fawn the world had fallen in love with nearly 20 years ago but who had seemed to fade away after years of disappointment, was back. That 10-footer fell and Sergio García was that effervescent kid again, happy and running free.
“It’s been such a long time coming,” Garcia said moments after he buried that final putt for birdie.
When the crowd erupted with chants of “Sergio! Sergio!” as if the tournament had been played in Madrid, he squatted, fists doubled up and hollered before standing and blowing kisses to the crowd on the same course he once said he hated.
Soon he was in the arms of the woman he credits with giving him a more positive outlook on life and golf, his fiancee Angela Akins. To the side stood Rose, noble in defeat and a picture of sportsmanship.
“I felt I was in complete control but it wasn’t enough,” Rose later lamented. “If there’s anyone to lose to it’s Sergio. He’s had his share of heartbreak.
“He rallied and had a great comeback. That par on 13, birdie on 14 and eagle on 15 put him back into the tournament. Other than that I had it won.”
No one does at Augusta though, until the jacket is on your back.
“The par on 13 was big,” Garcia said. “I had missed some putts and began doubting my reads. Under the gun, with the pressure and everything, it’s not easy to do. That gave me a lot of belief.
“This (was a) demonstration of my character and my mentality. How positive I stayed even when things weren’t going well on 10 and 11. Even on 13”
His eagle on 15 was nearly a double eagle when his second shot came within an inch or two of the hole. He buried his putt and after having birdied 14 he’d evened the match but immediately gave a stroke back on 16 when Rose birdied and he missed his putt.
They reversed that on 17 and then both missed potential winning putts on 18 that refused to break left, which reminded them of what Bubba Watson said Friday after failing to make the cut. “Golf is hard,” Watson pointed out and both were reminded just how hard — and cruel — it can be.
Each had once held the lead, then lost it. Each had made incredible shots to stay alive under the kind of pressure that can melt a man’s mind.
Now all they had to do on the 72nd hole was make a putt to break that tie. They missed.
So they signed their cards and drove back to the 18th tee to do it again. They’d begun the day at 6-under and just as tied. So who had played badly? Neither of them, frankly.
But this time, at last, Sergio Garcia played 1 stroke better.
“Now they can call me the best player who has only won one major,” Garcia said with a wide grin and a long laugh.
It was a title, like the green jacket he was wearing when he said it, he was happy to accept.