By Doug Ferguson / The Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Georgia—Sergio Garcia tugged the lapel of his green jacket with both hands, proud of his prize and how he earned it.
His hopes were fading on Sunday in the Masters—two shots behind with six holes to play—when his tee shot bounced off a tree and into an azalea bush, the kind of bad luck he had come to expect in the majors. Instead of pouting, he figured out how to make par.
Five feet away from winning, his birdie putt peeled off to the right. Usually resigned to fail, Garcia proved to be more resilient than ever.
He was a new man with a new title: Masters champion.
“It’s been an amazing week,” Garcia said, “And I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of my life.”
After nearly two decades of heartache in the tournaments that define careers, Garcia finally showed the mettle to win a major. He overcame a two-shot deficit against Justin Rose and won on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
No one has ever played more majors as a pro (70) before winning one for the first time.
Garcia got rid of the demons and the doubts with two big moments on the par 5s—one a par, the other an eagle—in closing with a three-under 69. It was never easy until the end, when Rose sent his drive into the trees on the 18th hole in the playoff, punched out and failed to save par from 15 feet.
That gave the 37-year-old Spaniard two putts from 12 feet for the victory, and his putt swirled into the cup for a birdie.
He crouched in disbelief, both fists clenched and shaking, and he shouted above the loudest roar of the day.
Rose, who also closed with a 69, graciously patted Garcia’s cheek before they embraced. Rose then tapped Garcia on the heart, which turned out to be a lot bigger than anyone realized.
“Ser-gee-oh! Ser-gee-oh!” the delirious gallery chanted to Garcia. He turned with his arms to his side, blew a kiss to the crowd and then crouched again and slammed his fist into the turf of the green.
All that Spanish passion was on display, raw as ever, this time sheer joy.
“Justin wasn’t making it easy. He was playing extremely well,” Garcia said. “But I knew what I was capable of doing, and I believe that I could do it.”
Garcia became the third Spaniard in a green jacket, winning on what would have been the 60th birthday of the late Seve Ballesteros. And it was Jose Maria Olazabal, who won the Masters in 1994 and 1999, who sent him a text on the eve of the Masters telling Garcia to believe and “to not let things get to me like I’ve done in the past”.
He didn’t get down after missing a 6-foot putt on the 16th hole to fall out of the lead, or missing a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have won in regulation.
His chin was up. He battled to the end.
“If there’s anyone to lose to, it’s Sergio. He deserves it,” Rose said. “He’s had his fair share of heartbreak.”
This was shaping up as another, especially after Garcia watched a three-shot lead disappear as quickly as it took Rose to run off three straight birdies on the front nine.
Tied going to the back nine, Garcia immediately fell two shots behind with wild shots into the pine straw bed under the trees. Rose was poised to deliver a knockout on the par-five 13th when Garcia went left beyond the creek and into the bush. He had to take a penalty shot to get out and hit his third shot 89 yards short of the green. Rose was just over the back of the green in two, in position to turn a two-shot lead into four.
Everyone figured this was coming, right?
Garcia himself had said, in a moment of self-pity, that he didn’t have what it takes to win a major. Four times he was a runner-up. This was his third time playing in the final group. But right when it looked to be over, momentum shifted to Garcia.
He hit wedge to 7 feet and escaped with par. Rose rolled his chip down to 5 feet and missed the birdie putt. The lead stayed at two shots, and the game was on.
Garcia birdied the 14th to get within one. His 8-iron into the par-5 15th — “One of the best shots I hit all week,” he said—landed inches in front of the hole and nicked the pin, and he holed the 14-foot eagle putt to tie for the lead.
Rose took the lead with an 8-foot birdie on the 16th and gave it back by missing a 7-foot par putt on the 18th.
Not since 1998 have the last two players on the course gone to the 18th tied for the lead, and both had their chances to win. Rose’s approach hit off the side of the bunker and kicked onto the green, stopping 7 feet away. Garcia answered with a wedge that covered the flag and settled 5 feet away.
The playoff didn’t last long. Rose was in trouble from the start with a tee shot that sailed right, leaving him blocked by a Magnolia tree. He chipped out under the tree, hit his third shot to 15 feet and missed the par putt.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel birdied the 18th for a 68 to finish third. Matt Kuchar made a hole-in-one on the 16th that gave him hope, but not for very long. He tied for fourth with Thomas Pieters, who ran off four birdies on the back nine.
Jordan Spieth, starting the final round only two shots behind, put another tee shot into the water on No. 12 long after it mattered. He had to birdie three of his last four holes for a 75. Also an afterthought was Rickie Fowler, who started one shot behind and shot 76.
All that mattered was Garcia and Rose, who delivered a final hour as compelling as any at the Masters and a champion who began to wonder if he would ever win a major.
Garcia says he has learned to accept bad bounces. He realized he has a “beautiful life” even if he never won a major.
“If it, for whatever reason, didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster,” Garcia said.
And then smiling, he added, “But it happened.”
Image credits: AP