We thought we’d seen this movie before, and we were ready for yet another heart-wrenching ending.
If past history were any indication, Sergio Garcia was supposed to lose this Masters in the clutch, not win it. Something horrible always happens to Garcia, he’s played the flawed tragic hero perfectly for close on two decades.
Shakespeare would have loved him. He’s such a drama queen.
First there was the close call at Medinah in 1999. It was the PGA Championship, and only Garcia stood between Tiger Woods and a multi-shot romp to the Wanamaker Trophy, at that time Woods’s second major win. But Garcia’s plucky attitude, indefatigable energy, and courageous shotmaking vaulted him to an instant fan favorite, even though Woods took the title.
“He’s young! He’s handsome! He’s Spanish – how exotic! Look at that shot from under the tree! He’s a young Seve Ballesteros! Go kid!” Garcia’s second place finish all but stole the show from Woods that day. Most people don’t ever remember who finished second in sports, but the golf world remembers that day – it was Sergio’s coming out party, and it set in motion media speculation that there was a European rejoinder to Tiger.
But sadly, the rivalry with Tiger never developed, or was at least decidedly one-sided. Woods pulverized him time and again, leaving Sergio searching for answers, but worse still, sounding petulant, even ungrateful after surly interviews. A few European Tour and PGA Tour wins came, but Garcia was remembered more for shooting an 89 in an Open Championship and crying in his mother’s arms, drooling into the cup once, and needling Tiger in an interview, then getting dusted by ten shots.
Even when Woods was out of contention or injured for a major and couldn’t play, it was Padraig Harrington, not Sergio, who took the title and the trophy. Padraig stung him twice, badly. First was the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Now Carnoustie is the bitter, acidic, nagging mother-in-law-meets-double root canal of major championship venues. It’s so relentlessly hard, it’s like going 15 rounds against both Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris. No matter who hoists the trophy at the end of the Open Championship at Carnoustie, the golf course always wins. But Sergio opened with a sparkling 65, and led after rounds one, two and three, starting Championship Sunday three shots clear of the field and six shots ahead of Harrington.
But Harrington closed with a Ben Hogan-esque 67, while Garcia limped to a 73, forcing a playoff. Padraig actually would have won in regulation, but he pulled his own version of a “Jean Van de Velde Moment.”
That’s sort of like a senior moment meets a bad methamphetamine trip.
You’ll remember Van de Velde as the most bumbling Frenchman since Inspector Clouseau tried to arrest that “cheempinzee minkee.” Van de Velde blew the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie when, with a 3-shot lead and one hole to play, he turned 18 into chopped salad, driving into the 17th fairway, eventually finding Barry Burn, an taking a triple bogey. He fell into a 3-way tie and lost a playoff to Justin Leonard. Harrington nearly did the same thing. He had a 1-shot lead as he stood on the 18th tee, but he found Barry Burn not once, but twice, including the same section of the 17th hole into which Van de Velde hit his drive. On the way to take his first of two penalty drops, Padraig passed Garcia who was going in the opposite direction playing 17.
“What are you doing over here?” Garcia asked Harrington as they met on the bridge crossing.
Harrington’s reply remains secret to this day, but the Golf Gods’ vengeance was stern and swift. Harrington carded a double bogey six, which meant that now it was Sergio who stood on the 72nd tee with a 1-shot lead. And when Sergio played his little bit of gamesmanship with Paddy, the Golf Gods heard and decided to trample Sergio underneath the hooves of their Steeds of Vengeance. First, Garcia, at that time putting with the long putter, lipped out a seven foot putt to win the Claret Jug in regulation play. Then Paddy filleted him in the 4-hole playoff.
If that pill wasn’t bitter enough to swallow, Harrington also did it to Garcia at Oakland Hills in the 2008 PGA Championship. Or perhaps it was the Golf Gods once again, because Garcia suffered horrifically bad breaks coming down the stretch on back-to-back holes.
With a one shot lead at the 15th, Garcia actually flew his approach shot into the cup – SLAM DUNK! – but the ball jumped out and rolled away a full 10 feet…whereupon he missed the putt.
Ask yourself if you have ever seen that happen. He hit the bottom of the cup in two, and scored a four. Call the cops; he got robbed.
But the Golf Gods weren’t through with Sergio. Here’s where they turned the Steeds of Vengeance around and came rumbling by for another pass. The iconic 16th hole at Oakland Hills has seen its share of history, and it seems will forever affect the outcome of majors, with its tucked pin positions, menacing water hazard, and difficult angles. The approach is one of the great shots in golf. Sergio cleared the water hazard, and by all rights his ball should have hung in the long grass for a simple pitch to the pin, but instead his ball hit a rock buried in the grass and caromed backwards into the water for a penalty. Harrington again went on to win.
You could see the pain in his eyes as he stood at the podium facing the press afterward. You could feel it in the long hug he shared with Ban Curtis, who also fought valiantly and finished one shot back.
“I’m so sorry man,” he said to Sergio, and Sergio was so crestfallen all he could do was return the embrace and look stunned, blinking helplessly.
It almost hurt Sergio that he would play so well in the Ryder Cup; he’s a Yankee Killer, make no mistake. But the acrimony that hovers at the edge of the Ryder Cup – those fans that take it too seriously – would help foment a simmering hostility towards him. Suddenly the young kid we all fell in love with was the bad guy. Americans began to dislike him, misunderstand him, sometimes intentionally. And it didn’t help that he didn’t win a major or beat Tiger.
Sergio, ever human, had mixed results in dealing with this. At times he accepted it and just went about his business, some say almost defiantly, at other times contrite. But then came the moment of acceptance, which many point to as the last piece in Sergio’s major championship mosaic, and he did it right here at Augusta National in 2012 after a third round 75 knocked him out of contention.
“I’m not good enough to win. I don’t have the thing I need.”
That stopped the presses…there was dead silence in the roomful of scribes. Someone put up their hand and meekly asked if Garcia meant just at Augusta National, and that’s when arcia confirmed it – no, he meant he didn’t think he’d ever win a major.
If I can make a baseball analogy: that was golf’s rejoinder to Pedro Martinez saying, “What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my Daddies.”
Pedro obviously got something lost in translation too.
All humor aside, though, in a way, Sergio is the Pedro Martinez of golf: Terrific for so long, but he couldn’t break through until a long time passed and he did some serious soul searching, even admitting defeat.
“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,” he admitted candidly. “But lately, you know, I’ve been getting some good help and I’ve been thinking a little bit a little bit different, a little bit more positive. And kind of accepting, too, that if it for whatever reason didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.”
That sincere introspection resonates with golf fans. Unlike other sports, we like our heroes humble and grateful, human and genuine. Sergio may be colorful, even brash at times, but he’s remarkably sincere and honest. Yes, sometimes he’s immature, but sometimes things get lost in translation too.
And like Pedro, when he finally arrived at the summit, it was all the sweeter for the climb.
Jim Nantz spoke of this being “validation,” but I think that sells Sergio short. He was always a fixture in the world of golf. He spent 300 weeks in the top 10 from 2000 to 2009, and he’s got 10 wins on the PGA Tour and 13 wins on the European Tour. This was more an apotheosis. Happily, he’s young enough that he might win more majors.
And some day we will see him as a Ryder Cup Captain
But best of all, winning the Masters cements his legacy with the American fans. He won’t be “one of the obscure guys who only won just a PGA,” like a Wayne Grady, Sean Micheel, or Y.E. Yang. His victory won’t be poo-pooed by the talk radio crowd as “just a Euro who could only win the British.” And he won’t be considered one of the occasional oddball winners of the masters like Mike Weir, Charles Coody, or George Archer. Sergio saved his best golf for the clutch, the eagle on 15 especially entering into the lore of the tournament forever. He even gave us some bookend history, joining his friend and mentor Jose Maria Olazabal as the last players to eagle 15 on the way to winning.
Gene Sarazen’s name tops that list, by the way. Nice company. And of course, he joined his other countryman Seve Ballesteros on the occasion of what would have been Seve’s 60th birthday, a touching bit of synergy.
When you take a moment to reflect on it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Sergio and the Masters are a perfect fit for each other. There’s going to be ups and downs, but if you’re patient and just ride them out, some day you’ll come out on top. No matter who dons the Green Jacket, Augusta always wins. But for once, Sergio did too. And we’re all the better for it.