Green Jackets can weigh heavily on champions' shoulders
A year ago, Sergio Garcia was the best professional golfer at the Masters. Twelve months on, he was the joint-worst, in 82nd place, joining the previous champion, Danny Willett, on the exit route down Magnolia Lane.
No great sporting event memorialises its winners like the Masters, where champions are re-tailored to look like the plutocrats who own the club.
The statesman role has proved too much for Garcia this year and Willett twice in a row. They are in good company as defending champions who fell by Friday. Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo were all scissored out of the tournament one year after winning, but none plopped five balls in the water at a single hole as Garcia did on Thursday.
Warning: winning the Masters can be deleterious for your career, unless you take the pragmatic view that one Green Jacket is a guarantee of immortality, after which all other achievements are a bonus. Garcia collapsed from No 1 in 2017 to No 82 in 2018 with equanimity, but the excitement he expressed last week hinted at how much he will be hurting.
"I've talked to Jose Maria [Olazabal, an earlier champion] and he told me when you get there and you go through the gates and drive down Magnolia Lane as a Masters champion - you'll see," said Garcia. "He couldn't explain the feeling. He said, 'You'll just see it feels different'. To walk around the grounds at Augusta and wearing the jacket and being seen as a Masters champion and everything - it's just so different."
Thanks, and goodbye, after two days. Garcia's looping ball-in-the-drink calamity on the 15th hole on Thursday became a viral mortification and condemned him to a first-round 81, though, with notable defiance, he birdied the next. His second-round 78 was not much better.
"I'm disappointed and I would have loved to have had a better defence of my title," he said before leaving 'the property' for another year. "Unfortunately this is golf and sometimes that's what happens."
Augusta's 15th hole doomed Garcia to the highest two-round total (159) ever posted by a defending champion (Faldo shot 156 in 1997). "Well, it's all about making history, and they can't take my Green Jacket away from me," Faldo reported Garcia as saying.
In Willett's corner even gallows humour was hard to find. The 2016 champion went round in 75 and 76 to finish seven-over par and tied for 58.
Prematurely or not, one-hit-wonder is a label now pinned to the man whose champions' dinner choices must have a distinctly one-off flavour for the Augusta National club chefs: "Sunday roast of prime rib, roasted potatoes and vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, apple crumble with vanilla custard, Yorkshire tea, English cheese and biscuits."
Willett's Masters record is tied-38, win, cut, cut, and he has stumbled into the wilderness. After his Masters victory he boarded the curiosity carousel reserved for Masters champions from unlikely places and admits he travelled too much and practised too little. A decent start to 2017 fizzled out with injury - a damaged rotator cuff in his left shoulder.
He missed 11 of 19 cuts in Europe in 2017 and has split with his caddie Jonathan Smart, manager Chubby Chandler and teacher Pete Cowen. His Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine was mortifying (he was 0-3 in a 17-11 loss). Asked to describe that Ryder Cup week in America, Willett replied, "shit". Asked to expand on that, he said, "really shit".
In 2018, Willett had made five starts and missed four cuts. As he left Augusta early for the second year running, he said: "It's a bummer. We were doing a lot of good work. I have a lot of good positives to take from the week and how we played and, but, yeah, things just didn't quite fall into place."
At 30, Willett still has time to recover, but as the show went on without the last two champions - both from Europe - there was never a clearer illustration of how Augusta's Green Jackets can be sport's heaviest robes.
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