AUGUSTA, Ga.—How fitting for Sergio Garcia to claim his first major golf championship on the 60th birthday of the late Seve Ballesteros, his beloved countryman and the first Spaniard to claim the coveted green jacket.
The monkey, long on Garcia’s back as a “can’t miss” golfer, has forever been removed with his first-hole playoff win over Englishman Justin Rose.
For the 37-year-old, the journey in golf has seen flashes of brilliance alongside more than a few instances of frustration. Sergio had gone through 73 consecutive majors without winning, but he will forever remember the 74rd at Augusta National Golf Club.
That long golf ride started when an exuberant Garcia burst upon the scene as a 19-year-old playing astounding golf at the 1999 PGA Championship and losing only to Tiger Woods by one stroke.
Much was expected of him after that shining moment. The future looked bright with many majors to come. But none did.
The frustration mounted over several near misses and that boyish charm showed a different side: a frustrated competitor who allowed the golf demons to detour his journey. The doubters were quick to pounce. Garcia was more about yesterday, the talented teen and no longer the darling.
Final rounds in major championships are where golfers cement their status as titans in the sport. Going into the final round tied with Rose was another opportunity for Garcia to show he had the internal control to handle what would prove to be, at times, a trying task.
That mission ended in glorious fashion: Garcia winning his first major but not without enduring a rollercoaster round that had him gain a three shot lead early and then having Rose birdie three straight at 6, 7, and 8 with the duo going to the back-9 tied.
Garcia showed flashes of his “old” self with swing breakdowns at the 10th and 11th resulting in back-to-back bogeys, pushing Rose to two strokes ahead with six holes to play.
If any hole played a more critical role in showing the grit of Garcia, it came at the famed 13th. The risk/reward par-5 played many starring roles in previous Masters with eagles and birdies.
But it was a hard-earned par Sergio made after taking an unplayable lie when his tee shot hit a tree and bounced under an azalea bush. In the past such breakdowns would have meant Garcia tumbling out of control and fading from the scene. Not this time.
A superb pitch shot from 90 yards was followed by a crucial par-saving putt from 12 feet. Assisting Garcia was a rare mistake by Rose who missed a six-foot birdie putt that would have extended his lead to three strokes with just five holes to play.
On the next two holes Garcia upped his game, birdieing the 14th and then eagling the 15th. With three holes to play the two were tied. When the two competitors reached the final hole, both hit quality approaches leaving themselves each a birdie putt to clinch the championship.
First Rose barely missed. Garcia had five feet for the win. He missed. Both men had played quality golf, ending the day with three-under-par rounds of 69 and an aggregate total of 279, which was three shots better than the next competitor South African Charl Schwartzel.
As the players left the green to return again to the 18th hole for the start of the sudden-death playoff, one could only wonder if those same golf demons were going to re-emerge for Sergio. Would he fail to push through given all the previous times when victory seemed so near?
Rose found tree trouble off the tee on the first playoff hole with Garcia again finding the fairway. After Rose chipped out from pine straw on the right side, Garcia followed-up with a convincing approach nearly as good as the one played just a few minutes prior.
Rose valiantly played a fine pitch but his par-saving putt from 15 feet missed to the left of the hole. Now with just two putts to win the Masters, Garcia sunk the 10-foot-putt and the green jacket was his.
The raw emotion bubbled to the surface as Garcia bent at the waist, his fists clinched, and that infectious smile many first saw in the 1999 PGA Championship was there to be seen in all its charm.
Garcia received a text earlier in the week from the other Spaniard to have won the event twice, Jose Maria Olazabal, imploring his fellow countryman to fight the fight and keep plugging no matter what. But no amount of encouragement would have assisted Garcia without a deep belief in fighting through all that he endured during Sunday’s final round.
This was the first Masters since 1954 without four-time champion Arnold Palmer on the scene who passed away in September at age 87. Palmer was the golfer who executed daring shots when needed to win.
Garcia did likewise when leaving the 13th green and trailing by two shots with just five to play. The old Garcia might have shrunk from the occasion and cursed his misfortune.
The Sergio who dons the green jacket showed a tenacity matching the Spanish bull head cover for his driver. Since his earliest days as a junior golf talent Garcia revered Ballesteros and all the five-time major champion did to elevate Spanish golf.
For too long Garcia was a figure in the shadows. He has now emerged and earned the salutation both Ballesteros and Olazabal were called—Masters champion.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.