AUGUSTA, Ga. – At one of the low points of his career, which like his home country has plenty of peaks and valleys, Spain’s Sergio Garcia had a stretch during which he re-gripped the club over and over. Sometimes he did it so many times before hitting a shot that it looked like a parody. Those in the gallery in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage with too much to drink and too little restraint gave him the business.
That was a major championship in which Garcia played very well but not quite good enough, no different from about two dozen others. Until last week’s Masters he had been a nearly man in the majors. When it came to proving himself in the biggest events, he was golf’s biggest jigsaw puzzle, and there were some missing pieces.
Garcia kept the lag in his swing, found the love of his life and got a handle on his attitude.
That was how he was able, at 37 years old and on his 19th attempt at the Masters and in his 74th major appearance – both records for futility – to finally write a different script by defeating Justin Rose on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
Beyond the shots they hit, the sport’s biggest winners roll with the punches when things don't go their way. Garcia, however, always had a glass chin in the majors, focusing on what went wrong instead of what might go right, so different, say, from Tom Watson and others who didn’t let a bad break become more than it was. Playing for history, those who pout, lose. Garcia was a slow learner.
As Garcia made his way around Augusta National on as pretty of a day as there has been for a final round there, his evolution was evident. It was an amazing afternoon in the final pairing, what Adam Scott, who won the 2013 Masters and contended Sunday, accurately called “a heck of a tussle.”
Garcia and Rose matched shots and sportsmanship. Hard to believe that five years ago on the very same grounds Garcia said he didn’t have what it took to win a major, and never would. Hard to believe, as Garcia low-fived Rose after the Englishman struck a fine tee shot on the 16th hole, that he spat into the cup on the 13th hole in the 2007 CA Championship at Doral.
Sunday, on another 13th hole, Garcia made a mistake, missing his drive to the left. His ball under a shrub, he had no choice but to take an unplayable lie. Having seen a five-stroke reversal – from three ahead of Rose to two behind – between the time he walked off the fifth green and when he got to the 12th tee, the old Garcia would have been ripe for a meltdown.
But instead of moaning about the golf gods, he kept his focus and scrambled for a par. That crucial 7-footer was followed by a birdie on No. 14 and an eagle at the 15th hole (just as countryman Jose Maria Olazábal made 3 there en route to winning in 1994). Without those strokes, Rose’s bogey on the 17thwouldn’t have opened the door.
Much was made that Garcia won on what would have been the late Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday. While this was no Harvey Penick-Ben Crenshaw Masters, the connection was striking.
Ballesteros was an emotional and complicated person, and so is Garcia. “I’m sure he helped a little bit with some of those shots or some of those putts,” said Garcia, although Ballesteros apparently stepped away from the TV for Garcia’s weak effort from 6 feet on No. 16. In its entirety, though, from the wedge approach that Garcia nearly jarred on No. 1 to his icing-on-the-cake birdie in the playoff, Ballesteros would have been proud.
It might not have bothered Garcia as much as it did everyone else that he had a hole in his record. “Major or no major, I have said it many, many times: I have an amazing life,” Garcia said. “I have so many people that care for me and love me and support me. I feel so nicely surrounded.”
The jacket does not make the man, but he did look good in green.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BillFields1