AUGUSTA, Ga. – Painful. Irritable. Awkward.
Those are some of the adjectives that described Sergio Garcia’s relationship with Augusta National Golf Club.
Yet, on what would have been the late Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday, Garcia and Augusta National came to terms with each other. In his 19th Masters appearance, the 37-year-old Spaniard earned a green jacket and lifetime invitation to return.
Since 1999, when he sat in Butler Cabin as the Masters’ low amateur, next to countryman and two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal, Garcia felt the allure of Augusta.
That spring day 18 years ago was the last time that a Spaniard won the Masters, until Sunday, when Garcia used a little Seve magic. He opened a two-shot lead early, lost it, then pulled even with Justin Rose at 9-under 279 through 72 holes. Garcia won on the first playoff hole, the par-4 18th, when a 12-foot birdie putt semi-circled the cup before falling.
“The drive this morning here to the course, I felt very calm,” Garcia said. “Even though yesterday I played well, I was a little bit more nervous(“This time could be different for Garcia at Augusta,” April 8, bit.ly/2nYG1CB). It was tough to control my emotions sometimes. But today, I felt comfortable all day.”
That comfort level was tested numerous times Sunday.
At the par-4 10th, he hit a poor drive and faced a 252-yard approach before making his first bogey in 19 holes. After driving left into pine straw on the difficult par-4 11th, Garcia played a magical recovery near the front of the green but failed to save par. With two bogeys in two holes, he had slipped back to par for the day and 6 under for the tournament, two strokes behind playing competitor Rose.
Garcia saw his momentum slip from bad to worse when his tee shot ticked a tree on the left side of the par-5 13th hole and dropped into a bush, from which he would drop for an unplayable lie. Garcia scrambled with a 7-foot putt for par before Rose missed a short birdie putt that would have given the Englishman a three-stroke cushion. It proved to be a pivotal swing in momentum.
“I was like, well, if that's what is supposed to happen, let it happen,” Garcia said. “Let's try to make a great 5 here and see if we can put a hell of a finish to have a chance. And if not, we'll shake Justin's hand and congratulate him for winning.”
Garcia shifted from enlightened to tenacious, even when Rose took a one-shot lead with a birdie on the par-3 16th when Garcia missed a potential tying putt. After Rose failed to save par from a greenside bunker at the 17th and both parred No. 18, the Masters went to its 17thplayoff in 81 editions.
Rose blinked first, hitting his drive right into the pines and magnolias before Garcia split the fairway. Rose would make bogey, leaving Garcia with two putts from 12 feet to win. Garcia holed the clincher for his first major championship.
After a congratulatory hug from Rose, a longtime European Ryder Cup teammate, Garcia flung his arms around caddie Glen Murray and blew kisses to the patrons ringing the 18th green as the sun began to set. The temptress that had held Garcia at arm’s length for two decades finally embraced him as a champion.
After slipping into the green jacket held by defending champion Danny Willett in Butler Cabin, Garcia conceded that he had come to accept whatever fate Augusta National might have in store for him. It was a powerful admission for a player who has experienced so many heartbreaks here.
“I have so much room for improvement,” Garcia said of a newfound clarity in life. “So, if I'm here and pretty much just started, I'm excited. I'm not 22 or 25 anymore, but I feel I still have a lot of great years in me. And I'm excited for those.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli