The golfing world had almost lost faith in Sergio Garcia ever winning a major championship. Now older and a bit wiser, he finally delivered on one of golf’s biggest stages at the 81st Masters Tournament.
It was 18 years and 74 major starts in the making but the dashing Spaniard can now be finally called a major champion.
In lengthening shadows at Augusta National Golf Club, the 37-year-old rolled in a 12-footer for birdie on the first play-off hole to defeat Ryder Cup teammate Justin Rose and win the 81st Masters Tournament.
He joins his childhood idols and fellow Spaniards Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983) and Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) as an owner of a green jacket.
Garcia finally delivered on the huge promise he showed when he was a runner-up to Tiger Woods as a 19-year-old at the 1999 PGA Championship.
After nearly two decades, the golfing world had all but lost faith in Garcia ever breaking through at a major. With so much baggage from four near misses and a host of other opportunities over the years, it was a faith that had even tested the man himself.
“I'm very happy but I don't feel any different,” Garcia said of finally winning. “I'm obviously thrilled about what happened here today, but I'm still the same guy. I'm still the same goofy guy, so that's not going to change.
“I think the problem is, because where my head was at sometimes, I did think about, am I ever going to win one. I've had so many good chances and either I lost them or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me. So it did cross my mind.
“But lately, I've been thinking a little bit, a little bit more positive. And, kind of accepting, too, that if it for whatever reason it didn't happen (winning a major), my life is still going to go on. It's not going to be a disaster.”
But the stars aligned for Garcia this week at Augusta.
As the field was battered by strong winds on Thursday, he made 17 pars and a lone birdie to post a 71, which was six shots behind first round leader Charley Hoffman. Three bogies were wiped clean by six birdies in the second round and he grabbed a share of the halfway lead at four under with Hoffman, Belgian Thomas Pieters and American Rickie Fowler.
Still, much of the talk in Augusta was about those lurking three and four shots off the lead. Garcia was mentioned as a chance in brief dispatches.
A third round 70 kept him well and truly in the mix as he shared the lead with Rose after 54 holes at six under.
In every Masters there is a moment where the player who eventually dons the green jacket can look back and point to a moment where they got a lucky break or had a stroke of fortune. Garcia’s came on Saturday afternoon on the 13th hole when his approach into the par-5 from 212 yards, hit the bank in front of the green and trickled down the slope towards the water. Instead of getting wet, it stopped on a small, grass ledge sitting just above the water line. From there, he chipped to a foot and tapped in for birdie – turning a six into a four.
When Garcia birdied two of the first three holes of the final round, the feeling among the gallery at Augusta was one of belief that he would finally win a major. Through five holes, he led his nearest pursuer, Rose, by three strokes and that belief intensified.
Three consecutive birdies from Rose from the 6th hole, had him level pegging with Sergio and the pair had separated themselves from the peloton. As they headed into Augusta’s back nine it was all set-up for a good old-fashioned dogfight, and the combatants didn’t disappoint.
Garcia threw two shots away with loose shots on 10 and 11, while Rose maintained his cool behind the reflector sunnies he now sports.
Another wayward drive at the 13th forced the Spaniard to take an unplayable lie drop from left of the creek lining the left edge of the hole. He punched out, pitched onto the green and made his par-saving putt from seven feet. When Rose three-putted from the back edge of the green, the two-shot status quo remained but there was a distinct shift in momentum. Garcia was buoyed, while Rose had taken a kick in the guts.
The par-save kicked Garcia into gear. He hit a 9-iron from 150 yards into the 14th green and made the putt for birdie. At the par-5 15th, he nailed an 8-iron from 189 yards into 14 feet and made the putt for eagle. It was the first eagle Garcia had made at Augusta in 452 holes. Rose followed in with a birdie and the two were level again.
Rose grabbed the lead by one with a birdie at 16, but gave that shot back at the next when his drive went into the trees right and he punched a shot into the bunker short, and was unable to get up and down for his par.
The two went to the 18th tee tied at nine under and after regulation play they remain locked, after Rose missed his birdie from seven feet and Garcia, for the win, saw his five foot downhiller slip by the right edge.
The Spaniard didn’t make the same mistake in the play-off. When Rose was forced to punch out from under trees beside the 18th fairway, Garcia hit his approach onto the green, about 12-foot right of the flag. When Rose failed to make his par, Garcia had two putts for the win, but he only needed one.
The enormous gallery surrounding the 18th green rose with Garcia as his putt trickled into the left side of the cup. The first person there to congratulate him was Rose, who warmly embraced him.
Then, with the sudden realisation that the wait to win a major was over, Garcia dropped to his knees and started punching the green. After 18 years, he had won and he had done on a course he felt he would never win on.
“A lot of those things came through my mind,” said Garcia of his thinking as he beat his fists into the green. “Some of the moments I've had here at Augusta that maybe I haven't enjoyed as much and how stupid I really was trying to fight against something that you can't fight; and how proud I was of accepting things.
“This week, I've done it better than I've ever had, and you know, because of that, I've looked at the course in a different way throughout the whole week.
RIGHT: Garcia makes his eagle putt on 15 to swing the momentum back in his favour. PHOTO: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
“I'm not going to lie; it's not the golf course that I'm most comfortable in, because I've become more of a fader than a drawer of the ball, and this golf course is asking you to hit a lot of draws. But I knew that I could still work it around, you know, if I just accepted what was happening. So I'm very proud of that.”
He is also proud of the fact he can now call himself a Masters champion alongside his idols – the late Seve Ballesteros, who would have turned 60 on Masters Sunday, and Jose Maria Olazabal, who sent him an encouraging text message on the eve of the tournament.
“I think that obviously Jose Maria's (text) was very special because he's my idol,” Garcia said. “He's one; him and Seve are both my golfing idols since I was very, very little. Jose he mentioned, you know what you have to do, just believe in yourself.
"For me, the most positive thing is that I feel like I have so much room for improvement. So if I'm here and pretty much just started, I'm excited. Obviously I'm 37. 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."– Sergio Garcia after his Masters win
“Obviously he did mention a couple of things that did kind of touch my heart a little bit. He said, ‘I'm not sharing my locker at the moment, and I hope that I get to do it with you.’ “He's a great man and we've had a great relationship for many, many years. To be able to join him and Seve as Masters champions from Spain, it's unbelievable.”
Garcia has always played with great passion, wearing his heart on his sleeve. But his newfound serenity could be the tonic for more major victories.
“Everybody that is around me that is helping me; that is making me not only a better golfer but a better person,” he said. “You know, it's been great. It's not easy, because I know how much of a hard‑headed man I can be sometimes, but it's been great.
“For me, the most positive thing is that I feel like I have so much room for improvement. So if I'm here and pretty much just started, I'm excited. Obviously I'm 37. 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.”
Adam Scott finished the best of the Australians, but he will leave Augusta thinking this was one that got away.
He started the final round three strokes from the lead and needed a fast start to put some pressure on the leaders. He put himself in position to make advances with birdies at the 2nd and 3rd holes and left both greens empty-handed.
By the time he reached the turn has run was all but done as the shot deficit was getting too much to make up, even on the back nine at Augusta.
“I was looking for something special today and it wasn't even close in all areas, you know, I really, at times I was in position to take advantage, I didn't, standing in the middle of the second fairway with a 4‑iron in and hit a terrible shot,” Scott said.
“And then missed a short putt on 3 and my momentum was off to the wrong start.
“So I was fighting and it's hard to feel comfortable all the time out there, especially on a Sunday. So, it wasn't going my way.”