Tuesday 21 May 2019

Comment - Sergio Garcia's persistence finally yields reward with Masters triumph

Sergio Garcia celebrates winning the Masters with a putt on the 18th green during a playoff against Justin Rose
Sergio Garcia celebrates winning the Masters with a putt on the 18th green during a playoff against Justin Rose

Paul Hayward

From the depth of its spirit the Masters found a way to reward Sergio Garcia for his perseverance and honour Save Ballesteros’ 60th birthday all in one afternoon. At his 74th attempt, Garcia has finally won a major championship and joined the great statesman of Spanish golf on the Augusta National board.

Seventy-three goes in to his quest, it was no surprise to see Garcia needing a further two in a single round. He missed a five-foot putt to win the title over 72 holes. But he drained a 10-foot one at the first play-off hole. He did it the hard way, which is his favoured route. It would have been a travesty for such a gifted player to leave the game without a prize of this stature, however great he has been in Ryder Cups.

Colin Montgomerie spoke of the effect the Masters had on his eyes on the “wet, grey” April days of his Scottish childhood: the “vivid colours” and “fast putts” of a world that gleamed with floral radiance and set the brain racing. Garcia’s Masters win will have set pulses raging around the world.

Masters Sunday is one of the most compelling days in world sport. And on the kind of pristine day Montgomerie talked about, Rose and Sergio Garcia duelled the whole way round Augusta until Garcia finally put his flag in the turf.

If the pressure seems too much sometimes, it helps when the two are friends. As the Europeans Garcia and Rose set off behind America’s Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, it felt like a Ryder Cup match, with the Augusta National Club enlivened by European shouts. By the end, though, it was every man for himself.

The lively send-off seemed to work for Garcia, on the day Seve Ballesteros, the 1980 and 1983 Masters champion, would have been 60. At the first, his approach shot landed five-feet from the pin and a birdie pushed him one stroke clear of Rose. At the third, Garcia knocked in an eight-foot birdie putt to extend his lead to two.

This early flourish had the custodians of the Ballesteros story dusting off the tale of his relationship with Garcia back in the days when ‘Sergio’ was tipped to be the next ‘Seve.’ But there was a long way to go, and many rivers to cross. Rose, an Olympic and US champion, has developed a taste for big prizes, and would not let this one go without a fight.

The turn triggered a mini-crisis for Garcia. At the 10th he posted his first bogey in 19 holes, then landed his tee shot on 11 behind a tree. He is in debt to a sound recordist in a foldaway chair, whose presence stopped the ball rolling into the wilderness. At 13, Garcia found the bushes and took a penalty drop, but still managed to get up and down to save par. His approach shot at 14 stopped six-feet short and he sunk the birdie. By 15, he was back on song, with a majestic eagle three.

Strange to report, the noise for Rose and Garcia had been louder than for Spieth and Fowler. Who could refuse to get behind a man with such talent trying 74 times to win a first major title?

James Brown, Augusta’s most famous son, used to say: “Never let them see you sweat. Come important. Leave important.” But you could never think like that in the final round of the Masters. The struggle is too stressful. Sweat is bound to flow.

Garcia had always left this place not ‘important’ but disappointed. His run of 73 major championships without a victory included 18 visits to the Masters, where his best finish was tied for fourth, in 2004.

His relationship with Augusta brightened over the first three days here, most notably with his Saturday round of 70. “It’s definitely improved, there's no doubt about that,” he said. “Nothing wrong with Augusta. I think the main thing that’s improved is the way I'm looking at in the last two or three years. It's the kind of place that if you are trying to fight against it, it's going to beat you down.”

Beating down Augusta on Sunday afternoon requires immense skill and concentration. Rose, too, had been denied thus far. In 2015, when Spieth won with an 18-under par score, Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, finished with a 14-under 274 - the joint-lowest non-winning score.

Only Garcia meanwhile could say whether the 60th anniversary of Ballesteros’s birth was an incidental matter or an inspiration. In his early days, Garcia rejected the role of torchbearer for Spain’s greatest player but the symmetry was undeniably there this year.

‘Seve’, who died in 2011, three years after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, was the first European to win the Masters. He played here 28 times - the first 40 years ago, in 1977, when he was 20. Until Ballesteros’ 1980 victory, only Americans and a South African (Gary Player) had experienced Augusta’s esoteric coronation, and his two wins laid the ground for another Spaniard, Jose Maria Olzabal, to prevail in 1994 and 1999.

Such is the beauty of the parade on a pristine day like this that you wonder how any great player could be satisfied with never winning the Masters. Many know the feeling. Garcia and Rose fought like demons not to be in that club. “It’s been such a long time coming,” said Garcia, who described himself as “calm” throughout. Yes, calm.

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