Shadow of Seve inspires Garcia to Masters glory as long wait ends
The memory of Seve Ballesteros, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday, cast a benign shadow over the European challenge for the 81st Masters at Augusta National.
Seve, the uber-competitor, the torment of so many USA Ryder Cup teams, was Spanish first, but also a genuine European talisman.
Perhaps he and Arnold Palmer, whose memory was celebrated so much here this week in the first staging of the Masters without 'The King' in 60 years, were in golfing heaven following the action yesterday.
If so, they could not have been more proud at the nerve-shredding, match-play-style exhibition of all that is good in golf presented by Ryder Cup team-mates Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
Ultimately the day and the honours belonged to Garcia, ending in late play-off drama at the first extra hole.
It had started in gladiatorial fashion when Garcia threw a couple of metaphorical uppercuts at his opponent with two birdies in the first three holes.
Rose countered with a hat-trick of birdies on holes six through eight. His only blemish came on fifth with bogey five. After nine holes, honours were even, both men at eight-under par.
The Spaniard had to say some prayers around Amen Corner when he got himself out of position off the tee on the 10th and 11th, dropping a shot on each hole.
The battle of heart, mind and nerve within each individual kept the patrons and millions of television viewers captivated.
A key moment came on the par-five 13th, when Garcia's drive went into trees, but he miraculously conjured a par; Rose looked set for birdie but three-putted. A lead that looked likely to stretch to four shots remained at two.
Holes 14 and 15. Birdie three on the former for Garcia, followed by a sensational eagle three by the Spaniard, who dug so deep to stay alive. Rose birdied 15 and 16, but bogeyed 17.
They came to the final hole bracketed together on nine under. Both hit the green, Garcia's ball five feet from the cup. Rose lay seven feet away. He went first, and missed.
Garcia's big moment. "This for the Masters." He, too, missed. Play-off time. Back to the 18th tee.
Now the mental aspect came to the fore. Garcia had played 73 previous Majors and won none.
Rose bogeyed after going into the trees off the tee, and forced to chip out right beside Garcia's drive. Garcia applied the coup de grace with a birdie three.
"It's amazing to do it on what would have been Seve's birthday," said a beaming Garcia in the Butler Cabin afterwards. "To join him and (Jose Maria) Olazabal, my two idols in golf, is something amazing."
Garcia revealed that Olazabal had sent him a text on Wednesday night urging him to believe in himself, and he needed all of that self-belief on the crucial 13th hole.
"I knew I needed to make that par because I was playing well enough that I could turn things around afterwards and that sort of turned the clock around for me," he explained.
That moment came with an eagle on 15 - with Olazabal the last player to do the same on his way to victory.
"It's probably one of the best eight irons I've ever hit and followed it up with a great putt. It's just amazing," said Garcia. "When I came here as an amateur in 1999, I felt like this course was going to give me at least one Major.
"I'm not going to lie. That thought changed a little bit over the year and I didn't feel so comfortable here. But I came to terms with it in the last couple of years, and accepted that this course gives and takes away."
The defeated Rose was philosophical afterwards and revealed that he could not do anything more than bunt his second shot up the fairway, having found a bad lie after his drive on the first play-off hole.
"There is some consolation (that it's Sergio) and it's hard not to feel good for him. I felt like I had it wrapped up at one point around the turn," said the Englishman.
"I said before the round that this course offers an opportunity and that's what happened. I felt I did almost everything right from a performance point of view. I was pretty calm throughout and was surprised with how icy I felt but it just wasn't enough.
"I just couldn't do anything else with that shot (in the play-off). If there was half a chance of playing it I'd have gone for it, especially with Seve in everybody's mind.
"But I had a pine cone behind the ball so I wasn't going to try and move that and I'd have had to aim around 100 yards left of the green to hope to get on. Even then, I was just trying to get away with a four which I couldn't do, but it just wasn't enough."
Earlier, Rory McIlroy partnered Matt Kuchar for the second successive day, and where sparks were expected by the four-time Major champion, the American hit a rich vein of form on the back nine.
McIlroy's 69, his only sub-70 round of the week, was too little, too late, to affect the outcome.
Afterwards he was in philosophical mood, saying: "It wasn't quite as adventurous as previous Masters. I didn't have any high nine-hole scores that were in the 40s. It was quite a consistent, steady Masters. I wasn't quite good enough.
"I felt like I had an opportunity yesterday to shoot something in the 60s that would have got me closer to the lead today, and I didn't quite do that. It was a case of what could have been.
"I feel like I gave a decent account of myself and I will come back next year and try again."
Looking to the future, McIlroy reckons he has plenty of time on his side.
"I am getting more comfortable here. I feel like every time I tee it up here I have a real good chance to win," he said. "My record over the last four years reflects that. Top-tens aren't good enough but it is going in the right direction.
"Every time I come back here I feel like I have a chance to win, so hopefully next year it's tenth time lucky.
"Coming off the golf course yesterday I was frustrated. But today, I'm encouraged again by just how I felt around the place this week.
"I felt comfortable.
"I prepared really well, came up here a couple of times, and really enjoyed my time here. I feel that served me well and it's something I will probably adopt for the future."