AUGUSTA, Ga. – We had planned for all the possible stories at this Masters overflowing with compelling angles, so a guy who dislocated his ankle in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest returning Thursday to contend for the lead was no problem. Pile on. Jordan Spieth, a stud again? Join the fun. There’s plenty of room.
But when Sergio Garcia came to the 15th hole, we had the story we thought we had buried. A year ago, Garcia absolutely altered his relationship with Augusta National Golf Club, turning what had been a personal torture chamber into a nice, comfy bed by winning the Masters. He smiled broadly. He returned this year and hosted the champions’ dinner, a grand and happy affair.
But on 15 Thursday, in a Masters that could be defined by the crowded and charismatic leaderboards it produces, Garcia and Augusta National engaged in one of their old tussles, the kind – prior to last year – that the course always won by knockout.
Suddenly, the traditional Spanish rice and lobster dish Garcia served to his fellow champions wasn’t palatable. Too spicy? Too bland? Doesn’t matter. Send it back. Come to think of it, this green jacket isn’t tailored correctly. After what Garcia did at 15 – he made, get this, a 13!!!!! – it’s a little tight through the shoulders and, to be honest, the neck.
“It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot,” Garcia said. “Simple as that.”
That, of course, isn’t simple. That, of course, is what Garcia used to sound like at the Masters. Last year, he shot two 69s, a 70 and a 71. Thursday, he signed for an 81.
“You saw it,” he said. “I don’t think I need to describe it.”
Let’s try, because what Garcia did at 15, to a degree, carried the conversation. He arrived there struggling a bit, 2-over par for the day. But the hole, one of two reachable par 5s on the back nine, is an opportunity. Shoot, in the final round last year, Garcia made eagle there, the catapult into a playoff with Justin Rose, which – don’t forget this – he won.
There have been 81 previous Masters, and the 15th hole ranks as the easiest on the course. There is water in front, and that makes the second shot potentially perilous. But Garcia’s tee shot left him just 206 yards to the pin. For a player of Garcia’s length, that’s a stock 6-iron.
“I thought it was perfect,” Garcia said. “Straight at the flag. I don’t know.”
The ball hit the bank over the water, and bounced straight back. This is why Augusta has so frequently frustrated Garcia in the past. A good shot can get an unlucky break, and suddenly bring disaster. When he charged to victory last year, he said – over the course of four days – that one reason he could contend was that he had come to accept that. He and Augusta shook hands, and came to a truce.
But all that goodwill was spit back into the water in a frantic matter of moments Thursday.
“If it carries probably two more feet, it’s probably good,” Garcia said. “And if it probably carries a foot less, it probably doesn’t go off the green and probably stays on the fringe. … But unfortunately, I flew it on the perfect spot for it to come back.”
That in itself would not have been news. A sand wedge nestled near the flag could save his par. A sand wedge and a two-putt would be only a bogey. Garcia might have driven back down Magnolia Lane disappointed, but not devastated.
And yet here came that sand wedge, and there the ball spun in the water. And the Garcia we got to know last year vanished, replaced by the obstinate version from all those previous Masters. His next sand wedge showed no ability to adjust. He tried the same thing. He got the same result. Then a third sand wedge, and a fourth ball overall, spun back into the drink.
“I kept hitting good shots with the sand wedge,” Garcia said. “And unfortunately, I don’t know why, the ball just wouldn’t stop.”
Except they were not good shots, were they? With all this going on, there was time to wonder whether the green jacket was still in Garcia’s locker, or had an Augusta member snuck in and smuggled it out? And then a fifth ball went into the water.
Add that up. Take your time. In the meantime, consider that no one had ever made more than an 11 at the 15th in the Masters. When Garcia’s final wedge landed within a few feet of the hole, he tidied up for that 13.
“It’s one of those things,” he said, flabbergasted. “It’s just unfortunate.”
What happened last year means Garcia is eligible to come to Augusta National every April for the remainder of his life. What happened Thursday made you wonder how he’ll feel about that.