AUGUSTA, Ga. — No golfer wears the misery of his game’s constant disappointments on his face more clearly than Sergio Garcia. Every gray whisker in his stubble stands for a day he wishes he could forget but can never let go of.
That beard will never regain its youthful color, but the expression on the face behind it is forever changed. On Sunday, in his 74th attempt to win a major golf title, Garcia won the Masters. That trip to a contented expression has taken nearly two decades.
At first, many years ago, Garcia suffered from bad bounces and spike marks in his putting line, just like all of us. But with time, he came to distrust sparrows that had not yet chirped, trees whose limbs conspired when his ball entered their domain and fans who might be deciding whether to heckle him. He was skeptical of entire continents — for example, North America.
Many doubted that a man so weighed down with self-doubts and suspicions that others — or the fates — were against him, would shed his emotional swings from competitive elation to utter woe-is-me. Now those questions are answered. Garcia won his Masters with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff with Justin Rose in one of the tensest, most dramatically swinging final Sundays ever.
Garcia has won 30 pro tournaments and dozens of millions of dollars and has had more gorgeous endorsements and lucrative girlfriends — no, that’s backward — whatever, he has had it all. But he has lacked the thing he wanted most and has chased for 22 years since he played in his first European Tour event as a 15-year-old prodigy — the major title that would prove he wasn’t a major choker.
Garcia, who calls himself “the same goofy guy,” loves horror movies. “But I don’t feel like this [pursuit of a major] was a horror movie,” he said after a 9-under-par 279 finish. “More like a drama — with a happy ending.”
To understand the depth of Garcia’s ingrained skepticism about the world that surrounds him and about the hostility he senses — and often exaggerates — all you need do is visit his official website.
You see a video of Garcia being challenged by a friend to hit golf shots at targets in the sky that are being carried by hovering drones. Garcia is demonstrating the accuracy of his brand of golf clubs. “What do those signs say?” he asks, pretending he does know the whole bit.
One says, “Sergio Sucks.” The next says, “Second Again?” The third is an insult, in Spanish, directed at Garcia’s favorite soccer team, Barcelona.
Eventually, Garcia knocks them all out of the air. But his buddy says, “This is your last ball.” And with his driver, Garcia obliterates “Second Again?”
That is an athlete with baggage. It should weigh much less now.
“Sergio deserves it, if anyone does, He’s had his fair share of heartbreak,” said Rose, already a U.S. Open champion, who bogeyed the 17th hole to fall into a tie and also bogeyed the playoff hole after a wild drive into the right woods.
This final round — if Garcia had lost — would have been described as Pure Sergio but in the worst sense of that phrase. Garcia, as has so often been his curse, saw his putting fail. He missed a five-foot birdie putt at the 16th to tie for the lead and, excruciatingly, missing a four-foot putt to win on 18.
But his whole day was full of the kind of flubs that have unhinged him in the past. He held a three-shot lead after five holes but saw it disappear by the time he reached the ninth tee. At the 10th, he sliced his approach into azalea bushes, where his ball easily could have been lost. But just as it did Friday on an almost identical Garcia mistake, the ball bounced out.
When Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes, then drove into the woods off the tee at the 13th and had to take a penalty stroke, the Georgia pines themselves must have thought, “Goodbye, Sergio.”
Then, the other side of Garcia came into view. Suddenly, the great match-play battler, who has a 19-11-7 record in the Ryder Cup, showed up to duel with his friend Rose, one of Garcia’s teammates for Europe.
“I was much calmer than in any major championship on Sunday,” Garcia said. “I have done better recently in accepting that if [a major title] never happened, my life would go on, and it would not be a disaster.
“But it happened!”
The wonder of Garcia, which every rival admires, is his creativity and shot-making, his ability to erase mistakes with swings of pure golf genius. Garcia birdied the 14th, then scorched the 15th hole for an eagle with a 15-foot putt that fell on the last turn of the ball. The last Masters winner to eagle that hole was another of Garcia’s heroes and friends, Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994. None of that symbolism, Garcia said afterward, was lost on him.
For Garcia, the best part of this win was that, rather than simply exhibiting his ability, it showed his resiliency in the face of exactly the sort of failures — those missed short putts and wild drives — that cracked him in the past.
“How stupid I was [in the past] to fight against things that you can’t fight against,” he said afterward. “And how proud I was about learning to accept things. . . . Though I still have to get better.”
This New Sergio even admitted that, once, he went into why-me grouch mode, imitating his own drown-in-negativism monologue to his caddie. But only once.
What was the final image of this emotional man who can show fist-pumping joy one instant, then seem creased with the cares of age just minutes later?
On the playoff hole, knowing he needed just two putts from 15 feet to clinch, Garcia feathered his final birdie putt into the cup on its last turn — an ideal graceful image if this is the shot of him that always will be replayed. He screamed with joy, went into a squat and beat his right fist once into the ground.
In his memoirs, the singer Smokey Robinson, an avid player, said, “Golf is wise. Golf don’t care about you.” Golf has never cared about Garcia, no more than it does about the rest of us, but Garcia felt that cold indifference in his sensitive, heart-on-his-sleeve golf-artiste psyche more than almost any player.
This week, others cared about him, even if golf didn’t. The Masters crowds embraced him. The thought of winning on what would have been the 60th birthday of his idol, the late Seve Ballesteros, was a psychological touchstone. And luckless bereft Sergio Garcia, on whom a clear blue sky always threatens to spit lightning, got a few breaks Sunday, then made far more of them for himself.
At the green jacket ceremony, he wriggled his shoulder like a little boy as the Masters coat was slipped across his shoulder. Then Garcia did what many in golf have wished for him — wished he could or would allow himself to do far more. He looked unworried and unburdened. He looked happy.
Over and over, as the golf world celebrated a day it fretted might never come, Sergio Garcia smiled and then smiled some more.
“I am going to enjoy this,” he said, “for the rest of my life.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.