AUGUSTA, Ga. — At last.
At long, long last.
Sergio Garcia, the onetime teen prodigy whose career has been defined by what he hasn’t done rather than what he has, finally captured his first major on Sunday afternoon. Garcia shot a 69 and outdueled Justin Rose in a playoff, coming from two strokes behind with five holes to play and avoiding self-inflicted wounds to claim a late victory.
Garcia battled both the course and his own demons, pulling himself back upright after what should have been a Masters-killing disaster in Amen Corner, and can now take his place among the game’s immortals. The 37-year-old Spaniard had played 70 majors before winning one, the most of any major-winner in golf history.
“If there’s anyone to lose to, it’s Sergio. He deserves it,” Rose said. “He’s had his fair share of heartbreak.”
Even Tiger Woods, one of Sergio’s biggest rivals over the years, was public in his praise.
Garcia is the third Spanish golfer to win the Masters. The legendary Seve Ballesteros won in 1980 and 1983 while Jose Maria Olazabal triumphed in 1994 and 1999. In a fateful coincidence, Sunday would have been the 60th birthday of Ballesteros, who died from brain cancer in 2011.
Sunday was the kind of blue-sky, light-wind day so perfect you wonder if Augusta National paid off someone upstairs to make it happen. And for nine holes, the day belonged to Garcia. He birdied two of the first three holes, stretched out to a three-stroke lead over Rose and the rest of the field, and if you’d never watched Garcia, or a Masters, you might be tempted to think that maybe this was the day that Garcia, at last, would end that brutal career-long major-free streak.
But then there was Rose. The Englishman is a genial sort, but not a sentimental one, and he’s damn sure not the kind of guy who hands over a green jacket that could be his. Rose birdied three straight holes starting with the par-3 sixth, and suddenly Garcia, through no fault of his own, found himself tied atop the leaderboard.
You know the tired cliché that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. By all appearances, Garcia proved that untrue; his Masters seemed to end on the back nine. Wayward shots on 10 and 11 doomed him to two bogeys, dropping him two shots behind the metronome-steady Rose. And then Garcia’s tee shot on the 13th lodged itself under an azalea bush, and it looked like Garcia’s day was done.
But Sergio wasn’t quite done. He scrambled his way to a par on 13 even with the penalty stroke, and watched as Rose missed a short birdie putt on that same hole. The very next hole, Garcia, up off the deck, birdied the 14th and cut Rose’s lead to one.
And then came the 15th, and one of the key moments in Garcia’s career. He executed a flawless eagle even as Rose birdied, and suddenly we were back to all square, no other players in sight. Win or lose, Garcia felt the joy of the Masters gallery behind him, and moved immediately to local-legend status. Three holes remained to see if he’d achieve even greater glory.
Both players dropped their tee shots to within six feet of the pin on the par-3 16th, but only Rose could convert the birdie, and walked up the short hill to the 17th tee up a stroke on Garcia. Rose slid an easy par putt past the hole, while Garcia didn’t, and both men walked to the 18th hole all square at -9.
Both Rose and Garcia split the fairway off the tee, and then Rose’s approach kicked off a small greenside mound and rolled to within 10 feet of the cup. But Garcia’s shot was even better, a beauty over the sand trap that nestled well inside Rose’s. Rose pushed his birdie putt past the hole, and then Garcia had one shot to win the Masters.
Extra holes beckoned, and the two men, all tied up at 69 on the day and 9-under on the week, traveled back to the 18th tee. Rose, hitting first, found the pine straw on the right side, while Garcia piped a drive right to the middle of the fairway. Rose could do no more than pitch out of the straw, while Garcia’s approach landed once again just a few feet from the pin. Rose’s own approach landed wide of Garcia’s, and Sergio had the opportunity once again to putt for a green jacket.
Rose’s par putt missed, giving Garcia two putts to win that elusive first major.
He only needed one and if the ensuing celebration looked like it was decades in the making, that’s because it was.
The week began on a more somber note than most Masters; this was the first April since Arnold Palmer, four-time jacket winner and patron saint of the 18th green, passed away. Nowhere was Palmer’s absence more apparent than on the customary ceremonial tee shot on Thursday morning, where the surviving two members of the Big Three, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, began the Masters as Palmer’s green jacket lay draped over a chair nearby.
The weather grew steadily better over the course of the week; thunderstorms and tornados gave way to chilly gusts on Thursday and Friday. But anyone lucky enough to make the weekend enjoyed sunshine and calm winds, with Sunday the finest, warmest day of the week.
Dustin Johnson entered the week the overwhelming favorite to win his first green jacket and second major overall. He never got the chance. Johnson slipped and fell at his rental home on Wednesday, injuring his back and ribs. He attempted some shots on Thursday prior to his afternoon tee time, but withdrew from the tournament just moments before he was scheduled to tee off.
Johnson’s absence upset the entire balance of the tournament. Not that DJ was guaranteed a green jacket – Augusta hasn’t had an overwhelming favorite roll through the tournament and win since that guy wearing red-and-black back in the early 2000s – but Johnson’s absence threw the door wide open for a host of competitors. And the first to charge through was … Charley Hoffman. Of course.
Hoffman’s seven-under first-round score was the second-most-surprising outcome of a windy Thursday, the first being Jordan Spieth’s quad at 15. Spieth completely misjudged the par-5 hole, dunking one ball and flying the green with another, and ended up carding a 9. Spieth finished the day 10 strokes behind Hoffman, and appeared out of the green jacket hunt on the tournament’s first day.
Another windy day on Friday wrecked scorecards and claimed a notable victim: defending champion Danny Willett, who missed the cut. Also out? Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, who jabbed at a journalist (and later apologized) on his way out of Augusta. Hoffman came on back to the field, ending the day in a four-way tie for the lead with Garcia, Rickie Fowler, and Thomas Pieters.
Saturday’s marquee pairing, Jordan Spieth mano-a-mano with Phil Mickelson, fizzled quickly when Mickelson gagged on the third hole. Spieth, on the other hand, climbed slowly but relentlessly up the leaderboard, and by day’s end was only two strokes behind Garcia and Justin Rose, with Fowler between them.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.