“Perhaps now I’ll be called ‘the best player to have won only one Major’, but you know what, I can live with that!” said a beaming Sergio Garcia at the hour-long post-championship press conference after winning the 2017 Masters tournament at Augusta, Georgia. And he meant it: as far as getting a monkey off your back is concerned, Garcia had long resigned to the prospect of never being able to do so.
Over the 18 years since he burst on the scene as a precocious teenager who seemed destined to be one-half of an emerging rivalry with Tiger Woods, Garcia’s inability to get the job done led to disappointment, then frustration, slipped into angst, and finally, abject surrender. In retrospect, that first loss, by a solitary stroke to Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, was just the first salvo in a litany of close shaves and failures. Woods famously went on to win 13 more Majors, but Garcia—who, before the 2017 Masters had teed it up no less than 73 times at Major championships—seemed fated to be the proverbial also-ran. In the process, he notched up more top-10 finishes in golf’s elite events than any other player in history.
It was always obvious that Garcia had the game: he remains one of the few players in the modern era to play classic old-fashioned golf. He bends the ball both ways off the tee, has tremendous powers of visualisation, and is by far, the purest ball striker in the world. His slightly idiosyncratic golf swing creates more ‘lag’ than has ever been captured on video and is a sheer joy to watch in a world dominated by the homogeneous modern golf swing.
But what he had in ability, he lacked in mental fortitude, and when things came down to the wire, as they did on several occasions, the emotionally volatile Spaniard couldn’t keep it together. Eventually, he ceded to a defeatist point of view: the nadir came a few years back at the very venue that now stands as his biggest triumph.
After a third-round 75 at the 2012 Masters, Garcia said, “I’m not good enough…I don’t have the thing I need to have… I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place…in any major,” he moaned, abandoning any veneer of bravado.
But you can’t blame Garcia—his litany of misses would have destroyed the strongest of men: at the 2002 US Open, he collapsed in the final round, losing again to his bête noire—Woods. It was the same story, with the same actors, but a different venue at the 2006 British Open.
In 2007, again at the British Open, it looked like Garcia might finally pull through when he led from the start through three rounds; he missed a short one on the last hole, which would have given him the title and then lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington. “I should write a book on how not to miss a shot in the playoff and shoot one over,” he quipped after that loss, indicating that he believed the golf gods were prejudiced against him. The tragedy continued at the 2008 PGA Championship that Garcia would have won had he not dumped an aggressive approach shot in to the water on the 16th hole on the final day. Most recently, at the 2014 British Open, Garcia came from behind to within two strokes of the winner, but couldn’t step on the gas. The only difference this time though was this was one tournament he didn’t win, compared to the ones that were his for the taking and which he lost.
Reams have already been written about Garcia’s spectacular play, and more importantly, the fact that he didn’t let missed putts destroy his focus at the 2017 Masters.
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The short putt to win on the final hole that he missed had déjà vu written all over it; the fact that he picked himself up, and got the job done, against a relentless competitor like Justin Rose is a huge testament to Garcia’s newfound equanimity.
Besides the obvious one, there was also the added pressure of the final round being conducted on what would have been Seve Ballesteros’s 60th birthday. The man Garcia has idolised since childhood, and whose company it has been his dream to be included in the annals of Spanish golf was probably watching over his protégé when Garcia got a couple of lucky breaks on the back nine. Augusta is a tough course, and its whimsies have not endeared it to Garcia who’s always been vocal about his distaste for the layout. This time though, the rub of the green was kind to him.
Even more heartening to see was the crowd rallying behind the very man it has heckled in the past. Every shot he hit in that gripping final round was egged on by the galleries who saw it as a last shot for redemption—for Garcia, for themselves, for every man and woman who’s faced heartbreak at this cruel game. Garcia’s torture had gone on long enough, and even this victory doesn’t assuage all the mental turmoil he’s suffered over the years. Hopefully, now, a new and liberated man, he’ll go on to win the most Majors by any man after the age of 37. But Garcia, like he said, at the post-match conference, couldn’t care less.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game.