A scintillating battle between two giants of the game ended in an emotional and long overdue major triumph for Sergio Garcia at the 81st Masters.
Sergio García – major winner. It is a phrase that the man himself, those close to him, and those who have followed his trials and tribulations in golf’s four most important tournaments from afar, will never tire of hearing or reading.
The long, painful, 18-year wait is over. On what would have been the 60th birthday of Seve Ballesteros, his hero and mentor, and in this 71st consecutive major, Sergio García is finally a champion. And a Masters’ champion at that.
Amid emotional scenes at Augusta, a sudden-death victory over Justin Rose, after both players tied on nine under par, finally gave the long-suffering Spaniard the major victory he had been chasing since he first burst onto the scene almost two decades ago. The tag of ‘Best Player Never to Win a Major’ is no longer his, and he probably won’t care whom he hands that unwanted mantle on to.
At last this was the 37-year-old’s time; even Rose, who battled his heart out for four days in Georgia, and was equally worthy of his first green jacket, seemed to sense that this was Sergio’s moment.
Seconds after he had holed out for birdie at the first playoff hole, the largely American crowd, without a home-grown champion to support, cheered out ‘Garcia, Garcia’ in unison. The scenes around the 18th green had the atmosphere of a Ryder Cup, only in some sort of bizarre reverse, where the fans weren’t calling out a team or a country, just one man’s name. Rarely in Masters’ history has so many people, from such a diverse community, been pulling for the same player.
If it all had echoes of Seve in his pomp, it was meant to be, especially given that the great man would have been celebrating his 60th birthday if he hadn’t been so cruelly snatched away in 2011.
Garcia, feeling the weight of expectation lifted from his shoulders, clearly felt the spirituality of the moment, and kneeled on Augusta’s hallowed turf, as he took in the enormity of his achievement.
“This is amazing,” said the winner, once he had had time to take stock of his achievement. “To do it on Seve’s 60th birthday, and to join him and José [Olazábal], who have been my two idols all my life, is amazing. José sent me a text on Wednesday night telling me how much he believed in me. And what I needed to do, to believe in myself, to be calm and not let things get to me. I was able to draw on that, and there’s no doubt that Seve helped me a little bit with some of those shots out there.”
That both players shot closing 69s are just numbers on a scorecard. The 81st Masters provided one of golf’s most memorable finishes in years. Well, at least since last year’s Open, when Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson were engaged in a similar five-hour slugfest. At times, it was hard to watch, especially over the closing holes, with Garcia missing short putts at 16 and 18 with a succession of nervy stabs, while Rose, who looked like calmness personified, suffered similar fates at 17 and 18, but it was a sporting duel that you simply couldn’t take your eyes off.
From the very first hole, where the tone was set with a Garcia birdie, to the last, the matched ebbed and flowed, with both players punching and counter-punching like heavyweight boxers. And the fact that these two old warriors are also the best of friends made this uncompromising scrap even more mesmerising. No more so than when Rose low-fived his rival on 16, after both players hit their tee shots inside 10 feet. Sportsmanship at its finest.
With the rest of the field peddling backwards, it was a straightforward match-play shoot-out from the turn. García held a three-stroke advantage after the 5th, but Rose reeled him back to parity with a run of three birdies from the sixth. Dropped shots from the Spaniard at 10 and 11 handed Rose a two-shot advantage, and a growing sense that the pressure of all those past losses was beginning to tell.
However, Garcia dug deep, and, after a monstrous drive at the 440-yard 14th, he fired an 8-rion to eight feet and rolled in the birdie to bring the deficit back to one. At the treacherous par-five 15th, he launched another bomb down the centre of the fairway, outdriving his rival by fully 50 yards, to set up one of the shots of the tournament, a towering six-iron that pitched six inches in front of the cup and rolled 10 feet away. The ensuing uphill eagle putt looked to have run out of steam as it neared the cup, but with one last rotation it dropped, and the roar that rung out could be heard up to the clubhouse and down Magnolia Lane. García punched the air in delight and the game was back on. Rose bravely holed out for a birdie of his own, and they headed to the 16th on level terms.
Both players struck perfect shots at the par-3 hole, but while Rose’s steely determination and deft touch resulted in a birdie, Garcia’s much shorter effort barely made the distance and drifted tamely offline to restore the Englishman’s advantage.
Struggling to keep up with Garcia’s power off the tee, Rose found the front bunker on 17, and failed to get up and down in two, while Garcia left his 25-foot birdie attempt fully five feet short, but holed the par putt to put them back on level terms.
Both hit belters up the 18th fairway, setting up a clear sight of the hole, and while Rose’s second took a lucky bounce off the slope of right-hand bunker to finish 15-feet from the hole, Garcia took dead aim over the flag and left himself a knee-knocking five footer. That both players missed was hardily surprising. They were two prizefighters who had nothing left to give. Only they had to do it all again in a play-off. And when Rose found himself stymied behind the branches in the right-hand woods off the tee, Garcia was centre cut once again, and drilled another mid-iron to within 10 feet. Rose’s par putt drifted agonisingly on the low side, while Garcia, serenely slotted his birdie attempt, and the 18-year wait for Major glory was final over.
Filling the minor places were Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 champion, who ended up best of the rest at six under after a closing 68, while Thomas Pieters, on his Masters debut, earned a share of fourth with Matt Kuchar on minus five, and surely looks destined to win a green jacket for himself one day.
The biggest shock of day four was Jordan Spieth’s failure to land a meaningful blow. Starting the final round just two shots off the lead, the 23-year-old Texan bogeyed the first, and seemed on the back foot from there on in. On the 12th, which proved his undoing 12 months ago, he once again hit his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, but this time walked off with a five rather than a seven. Three birdies in the closing four holes repaired some of the damage, but a closing 75 and tie for 11th was a poor return for a man who many expected to keep up the pattern of his 2-1-2 form at Augusta.
Just ahead of Speith was Rory McIlroy, who must wait at least another year to complete a clean sweep of majors. The Northern Irishman signed off with a 69 to tie for seventh after a week when any gains were almost instantly wiped out by errors. “It wasn’t quite good enough,” said McIlroy. “I’m getting more comfortable here. I feel like every time I tee it up I have a good chance to win. Top 10s aren’t good enough, but it’s going in the right direction.”
One man whose, game, and life, is now going in the right direction is Sergio Garcia. With a wedding planned for the summer, the future, on and off the course, looks rosy indeed – if Justin won’t mind the pun.