We can all say it now, it’s real: Sergio Garcia is a major champion.
And oh man, there are few golfers who got that major monkey off their back in grander fashion than Garcia did.
The Spaniard needed a semi-miracle just to stay within two of the lead with five to play Sunday at the Masters, then had to go birdie-eagle on 14 and 15 to get a share of the top spot. He battled Justin Rose for three more ferocious holes and got to the 18th green with a 5-footer for birdie to win.
He saw the ball fade low on the right side, and even with a par, an incredible hard fought final-round 3-under 69 and a 9-under 279, his work wasn’t done.
Garcia still had to defeat Justin Rose in a playoff, which he did with a birdie (to Rose’s bogey) on the first extra hole.
Garcia had two putts from 12 feet to win the title on that par-4 18th in the playoff, but he only needed one, curling his birdie effort in on the left side to secure his long-awaited major glory.
Yes, nearly two decades of heartbreak can be flushed from Garcia’s mind. The 37-year-old Spaniard, who for so long was questioned for his failures in majors – Why did he always falter when he had the chance to win? Why couldn’t this super-talent capture just one? – can be doubted no more.
Hear that, haters? Garcia now has his first major title. And he won it at Augusta National. In a playoff. After an epic back-nine duel where Garcia battled from behind.
Wait, are we still talking about Sergio Garcia here?
“Today I felt the calmest I’ve ever felt on a major Sunday,” Garcia said.
“I don’t want to brag about it or anything. But from the drive this morning here to the course, I felt very calm. I felt very, you know, very at ease,”
Yeah seriously, was this really Sergio Garcia?
The Spaniard’s legend was birthed at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, where he scissor-kicked his way to a near win in an electric duel with Tiger Woods. The fact that he finished runner-up one shot back rather than winning the event didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.
Garcia was only 19 years old, he had all the talent in the world and was charismatic – several majors would roll in soon enough.
But as the years went by, the vault was still empty. Sure, Garcia won several times on the PGA and European tours – boasting nine and 12 wins, respectively, on those circuits ahead of this year’s Masters – but his major count was still set at zero.
Garcia didn’t truly contend in the final round of a major again for three more years after his Medinah push, placing fourth at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black – a week that stirred up more bad than good for Garcia. The boisterous New York crowds heckled mercilessly at Garcia, to his great dislike, and the Spaniard also managed to complain that if Woods were in his section of a poor weather draw, play would have been suspended.
That reputation for petulance didn’t disappear.
When Garcia squandered his best chance at a major yet, blowing a three-shot final-round lead at the 2007 Open Championship, he blamed greater forces.
After missing a 7-foot putt for par to win in regulation and falling in a playoff to Padraig Harrington, Garcia pointed the blame for his defeat at the golf gods.
“I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, not just the field,” Garcia said after the tournament.
Another close loss for Harrington ensued at the 2008 PGA Championship, and as the years went by, more major championship top-10 finishes came, 22 in all prior to Sunday’s win, but in 73 major starts still zero wins.
He won the 2008 Players Championship in the meantime, but by 2012, Garcia came to the conclusion that he’d never win one of the big four.
“I’m not good enough … I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said in April 2012. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place (in majors).”
Five years later, and it’s a total turnaround.
Garcia wasn’t fazed at all this week. He was in contention for the final 54 holes of the tournament, sharing the 36-hole lead at 4 under, the 54-hole lead at 6 under and the 72-hole lead at 9 under.
Oh, by the way, he was trying to win Sunday on what would have been the 60th birthday of the late Seve Ballesteros – one of Garcia’s idols and a grand mentor. No pressure.
But he still stayed calm.
After Friday’s 69, Garcia expressed that he’d been working on his attitude and while it remained a project, strides were being made.
“I think that I’m working on trying to accept things … which can happen here and can happen anywhere,” Garcia said Friday. “You’ve just got to realize that those things are going to happen, and if you manage to do that, then you can come out here and compete and have a chance.”
Garcia repeated the sentiment Sunday, and it’s not just a platitude. Garcia was tested severely over the final 54 holes and he passed through it all.
On Friday, there was a scoring error that had him for a time erroneously down for a triple bogey at No. 10 when he really made bogey. He nearly holed a bunker shot at No. 12 only for it to lip out and made bogey at the par-5 13th after hitting what he called a beautiful drive and a beautiful second shot approach. Yet, he played his final five holes after that in 2 under for a 69.
In the third round, he had to battle. Two late birdies got Garcia the 70 he needed to share the 54-hole lead at 6 under with Rose.
One of those red figures came via a great break at the 13th, where Garcia had hit his second shot short, and it seemed his ball was destined for the water. But it stayed up on the bank. He’d gone from potential bogey to birdie.
Asked if the golf gods helped that one, Garcia didn’t take the bait, simply replying, “I don’t know.”
But Sunday brought the biggest onslaught from those pesky forces above. Garcia shot out to a three-shot lead at 8 under thanks to birdies at Nos. 1 and 3.
It was quickly a two-man race, as Jordan Spieth (75) and Rickie Fowler (76) would finish in a tie for 11th at 1 under. Charley Hoffman, another contender to start the day, faded to 78 to finish T-22 at 2 over. Charl Schwartzel (68) placed third at 6 under, and Matt Kuchar (67) and Thomas Pieters (68) were in at 5 under for a tie for fourth.
Kuchar made an epic hole-in-one at the par-3 16th on the way to his high finish.
Garcia seemed to have the advantage on Rose until the Englishman birdied three straight from Nos. 6-8 to tie the lead. And when Garcia bogeyed 10 and 11 to fall to 6 under and two behind, it seemed yet another occasion where he would fall short.
But Garcia’s new comportment shone through.
“I was still positive, I still believed,” Garcia said.
But it didn’t help that he hit his drive too far left on 13 and had to take an unplayable.
“You know, I was like, well, if that’s what is supposed to happen, let it happen,” Garcia said. “Let’s try to make a great five here and see if we can put a (heck) of a finish to have a chance.”
He ended up having 7 feet left for par on the hole just to avoid going three down. He drained it, and that was the spark he needed.
A 6-footer at 14 for birdie ensued, two back. And then Garcia authored an incredible 8-iron from 192 yards at the par-5 15th, thumping it to 14 feet for eagle.
“I probably hit one of the best 8‑irons I’ve ever hit,” Garcia said.
Rose birdied to get to 9 under. So Garcia had this putt to tie. His eagle effort barely wiggled to the hole, but it dropped, leading to a thunderous roar and an emphatic reaction from Garcia.
Rose would follow by draining an 8-footer for birdie at 16 to move to 10 under, and when Garcia missed his 6-footer to tie, the tide seemed to turn again. But Rose bogeyed 17 after missing a 7-footer to fall back into a tie and left his 7-footer for birdie at 18 on the high side.
All Garcia needed was to make that 5-footer for birdie from behind the hole to secure his first major. The golf gods decided to take one last swipe, though, before letting the Spaniard get his glory, as the putt didn’t break back to the left as Garcia had seen it do in practice rounds. Another 72nd hole putt to win a major, another opportunity missed.
On that playoff hole, though, Rose went wild right off the tee and had to lay up. Garcia pounced by knocking his second shot to 12 feet. When Rose’s lay up went to 14 feet and he missed the ensuing putt, it was all left for Garcia, who closed it out in fashion with a birdie.
Garcia seemed to let all of his past agony out in a vibrant and emotional celebration following his final putt dropping. And hey, nobody can say he didn’t deserve that cathartic release.
Garcia iterated, though, that he had a beautiful life regardless and he could have gone on with another close loss Sunday. He also doesn’t see any reason to feel changed after the win.
“To be totally honest, I mean, I’m very happy but I don’t feel any different,” Garcia said. “I’m obviously thrilled about what happened here today, but I’m still – I’m still the same guy. I’m still the same goofy guy, so that’s not going to change.”
Rose, who captured his first major title at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, was sanguine in defeat. The 36-year-old is confident he will eventually get his Augusta prize.
“This is a tournament I really feel I’m going to win one day,” Rose said.
The fact that Garcia’s first major title came at Augusta is, frankly, surprising. He had finished in the top 10 just once here since 2010.
Garcia admitted Sunday that he started to feel uncomfortable at this course, but that’s not any sort of revelation considering he’d been openly at odds with Augusta in the past.
At the 2009 event, Garcia deemed Augusta unfair and tricky, adding, “I just come here, play golf and go home.”
Those comments about not being good enough to win and playing for second or third? They came after a third-round 75 at the 2012 Masters knocked him from one off the lead to out of contention.
Over the years, he’s come to a new understanding with this layout.
“I think it’s the kind of place that if you are trying to fight against it, it’s going to beat you down,” Garcia said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to myself.”
Well it took awhile, but Garcia’s prodigy ability is finally bearing major championship fruit. It couldn’t come at a better time. He is set to marry former college golfer Angela Akins later this year, and winning this tournament on Seve’s 60th brought extra joy.
Ballesteros won the Masters twice (1980, ’83) as did another Spanish golfing legend in Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, ’99).
Olazabal actually sent Garcia a text Wednesday night expressing his belief in the 37-year-old. The new Masters champion was moved that he’d won the green jacket on this day.
“To do it on (Seve’s) 60th birthday and to join him and Olazabal, my two idols in golf my whole life, it’s amazing,” Garcia said.
It was amazing to watch.
What can you say now that you’re finally a major champion, Sergio?
“I’m so happy,” Garcia said.
Yes, you should be. Go home and celebrate, the weight is lifted.