AUGUSTA, Ga. — In Sergio Garcia’s folded knees and collapsing legs and in his bend at the waist that could not be controlled was everything from the past two decades, self-doubt and self-loathing and all the pain both can bring. He has been — pick a phrase because over the years we have used them all — star-crossed and whiny, unlucky and unsure, talented and tortured. Each applies.
But Sunday night, so much of his life changed. Think that’s an overstatement? Fine. He would argue he was going to be happy either way. But don’t forget Augusta National once owned him to the point of dejection. Don’t forget major championships once caused him such frustration that he publicly declared he could not and would not win one.
And so, this: a downhill putt on Augusta’s 18th green, one that curled ever so delicately into the bottom of the cup. It’s a putt he has missed his whole career. Heck, it’s a putt he missed not a half an hour earlier — not from the same spot but with the same stakes.
This one that finally, gloriously went in? It came on the first extra hole of the 81st Masters. It settled in for birdie. It beat Englishman Justin Rose. It made him a Masters champion.
That’s the simple stuff. This Masters — and its champion — are far more complex.
“I’m very happy,” Garcia said. “But I don’t feel any different. I’m obviously thrilled about what happened here today, but I’m still the same guy — the same goofy guy. That’s not going to change.”
Yet in that putt, in this performance, there’s so much change. Not in Garcia’s golf swing. In his attitude.
“Where my head was at sometimes,” Garcia said, “I did think about, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’ ”
Garcia on Sunday not only beat the game and gallant Rose — they shot matching 69s in the final group — but he beat back all the labels that threatened to follow him to the grave. There was the notion that, with an 0-for-73 record in majors, his unfulfilled potential made him a disappointment. There was the evidence that he lost the verve and joy that once defined him. There were the suggestions that in the largest moments, he came up small.
The theme of this week, then, was Garcia’s transformation — a theme that was easy to buy given how he spoke of this place, a place that once drove him stark-raving mad but that he said, more than once, he had learned to “accept.” He also worked hard to express that he had accepted so much about his life, that there was satisfaction, even, in being labeled the best golfer never to win a major.
“At least ‘best’ player, there’s some good in there,” Garcia said.
Still, come on.
“It must be hard for guys, when they are striving to win majors and they are seeing their peers pick them off,” said Rose, himself the winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, “and they are kind of being left behind.”
He is left behind no longer because he fought when he might have folded. He looked forward instead of behind. All of that helped get Garcia and Rose to the 72nd tee, tied at 9 under. And the specifics of how they got there forever will be worthy of review.
When all the likely contenders fell off — most notably 2015 champ Jordan Spieth with a 75 and wannabe major winner Rickie Fowler with a 76, neither a factor — this quickly became a match between Garcia and Rose, who played together in the final group. When Rose bogeyed No. 5, Garcia led by three. When Garcia made bogey at both 10 and 11, the advantage was Rose’s by two.
And it looked like it would be more. Yet here, trailing, is where we find evidence of Garcia’s maturation. His drive at the par-5 13th sailed left. It settled under an azalea bush. It was in jail.
“In the past, I would have started going, you know — at my caddie,” he said, implying there were words not fit for print. “And, ‘Oh, you know, why doesn’t it go through?’ ”
So a key to the match was what happened over the next 10 minutes: Garcia took an unplayable lie, dropped, punched his third shot down in front of the green, then coldly got up and down for par, the save of his life. Rose had five feet for birdie and a three-shot lead — and missed. They both made 5. Yet somehow the momentum seemed to be Garcia’s.
“Even though it was a par,” Garcia said, “it kind of made me more confident.”
That notion was reinforced at 14, where Garcia made birdie, and 15, where Garcia — who routinely out-drove Rose by 40 and 50 yards, absolute missiles — hit a monstrous tee shot, then flushed an 8-iron. On one hop, the shot hit the flagstick and settled some 15 feet away. That was 15 feet for eagle.
“One of the best shots I hit all week,” he said.
When he holed the putt and he gave a knockout of a fist pump afterward, he held the lead at 9 under. Rose punched back with a birdie of his own to tie, and it was on.
“You’re going to win majors, and you’re going to lose majors, but you’ve got to be willing to lose them,” Rose said. “You’ve got to put yourself out there. There’s a lot of pressure out there, and if you’re not willing to enjoy it, then you’re not ready to win these tournaments.”
So they enjoyed the heck out of it. Each had a potential putt to lose sleep over coming in — Garcia a four-footer for birdie at 16, Rose a six-foot par saver at 17. But that merely left them tied headed to the last.
And then, after two smoked drives at 18, two putts: Rose from eight feet to the right of the pin, which slid by. Garcia, then, for the win, from five feet above the hole.
“I hit the putt exactly where I wanted,” Garcia said. Except for one thing: It didn’t go in.
So they went back to 18 again for the playoff. And here, for once, Garcia gained a clear and obvious advantage. Rose played first and pummeled his drive into the trees to the right of the fairway. He only could punch out. Garcia played two clean shots, and when Rose missed his par putt, Garcia had the luxury of getting down in two. He needed only one.
“Just a lot of things going through my mind,” he said.
The decades, the losses, the disappointments — they all just rush up, available at the fingertips. Had Garcia matched the promise he showed as a 19-year-old, when he was a buoyant boy bouncing around the fairways as he chased Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship, Sunday certainly wouldn’t have been as poignant. That tournament, even now, is important because it cast what Garcia was supposed to be — all fun and enthusiasm — against what he became, which seemed, at times, downright surly.
By Sunday night, though, he was nothing but smiling. After he blew a kiss to the gallery, he bent over again, kneeled down and punched the green with his right fist. At one point in his career, he might have tried to knock Augusta National out, fist balled in fury. Finally, here was a loving tap.
“How stupid I really was, trying to fight against something that you can’t fight,” Garcia said, “and how proud I was of accepting things.”