AUGUSTA, Ga. – Walking up the ninth green at Augusta National on Sunday, after hitting his approach shot to 15 feet from the hole, a patron yelled at Sergio Garcia: “it’s your tournament!”
After 72 holes, and one sudden-death playoff hole, it finally was.
Garcia and Englishman Justin Rose both finished at 9-under after 72 holes after shooting matching 3-under-par 69s Sunday. Garcia then clipped his longtime Ryder Cup teammate with a 15-foot birdie putt on the first sudden-death playoff hole to win his long-awaited first major championship.
Sunday played out as a microcosm of Garcia’s career – featuring a mix of heartache, drama and shot-making – except of course for the ending. Prior to Sunday evening Garcia had the dubious distinction of owning the most-ever Top 10 finishes in major championships without a victory (22).
“I think the problem is, because of where my head was at sometimes, I did think about: ‘Am I ever going to win one,’” Garcia acknowledged after the round. “I’ve had so many good chances and either I lost them or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me. It did cross my mind. But lately, you know, I’ve been getting some good help and I’ve been thinking a little bit different. A little bit more positive.”
Garcia birdied the first and the third holes of the day, and after Rose bogeyed the fifth, he was leading by three. Rose would birdie three-straight holes and make the turn once again tied with Garcia.
The walk between the ninth green and the 10th tee takes about 30 seconds, but when you have a chance to win your first major, it must certainly feel a lot longer. As Rose made the walk towards Augusta’s fabled back nine, he confidently bumped fists with patrons. He was followed by Garcia, who despite receiving more cheers than Rose, made no effort to acknowledge the fans and did nothing but write his score down and stay as close to the middle of the pathway as possible.
If body language was any indication, you’d have thought Rose was about to run away with this tournament.
On 10, Garcia hit a poor drive and left the green with a bogey five. Another bogey followed on 11. After a par on 12, he hooked his drive left into the pine straw on 13 and had to take an unplayable lie. Following a drop, a punch out to the fairway, a terrific wedge onto the green and a clutch 10-foot putt, he somehow escaped with a par. For once on the back nine of a major, momentum appeared to be on Garcia’s side, and his body language had changed as a result.
Following a birdie on 14, Garcia piped a drive down the middle of the par-5 15th. He followed with arguably the shot of the day — an eight iron to 12 feet. When his eagle putt dropped, he let some emotion and fist pumps fly.
The last time a Masters champion made eagle on that hole was in 1994 when countryman Jose Maria Olazabal – who had sent Garcia a number of encouraging messages all week — pulled the trick.
But despite Garcia’s eagle, which drew him level with Rose on 9-under, the pesky Rose just wasn’t going away.
On the par-3 16th, Garcia played a trademark towering iron shot that rode the slope perfectly, finishing just a few feet from the hole. Rose, meanwhile, took dead aim. His ball landed just outside of Garcia’s, but he made his putt while Garcia took a weak stab at his and missed.
After a Rose bogey on 17, they headed to 18 tied. Garcia first watched another spectacular Rose approach, but then nestled his own inside of the Englishman’s, and had a putt to win outright regulation. But when Garcia’s putt stayed outside right, the audible groans from 18 were heard across the course. The two golf heavyweights were now heading back to the 18th tee for a playoff.
“When I get into playoffs, lately, I’m quite comfortable,” said Garcia. “I feel like I’ve already had an amazing week no matter what happens, and you know, I can go out there and kind of freewheel it. Obviously I hit two great shots and a wonderful putt to finish with.”
After his birdie putt dropped in the playoff, Garcia’s emotions let loose once again. He was no longer the ‘best player never to have won a major,’ and the accolades, including from Rose, came pouring in.
“We’ve played a lot of golf together since we were about 14 years-old,” said Rose. “We’ve always had a good friendship and a good camaraderie and good rivalry. You know, and he’s always been happy for me. It must be hard, as well, for guys when they are striving to win majors and they are seeing their peers pick them off and they are kind of being left behind. It’s nice for him now to have that monkey off his back. I was very pleased for him.”
The man once known as ‘El Nino,’ (which translates into ‘the boy,’) finally became The Man Sunday at the Masters.