AUGUSTA, Ga. (USA TODAY) — Just when everyone was beginning to write the latest chapter in the Shakespearean tragedy that is Sergio Garcia and major championships, the Spaniard flipped the script.
In a dazzling turn of events Sunday as the Georgia pines began to cast lengthy shadows on Augusta National Golf Club, Garcia recovered from a two-shot deficit with six holes to play and an errant drive on the par-5 13th that was destined for disaster to win the 81st edition of the Masters in a playoff against Justin Rose.
After missing a birdie putt from 5 feet on the final hole of regulation play that would have won the tournament, Garcia’s gloomy futility in majors and tormented relationship with Augusta National came to an end when he won his first major with a 12-foot birdie on the first playoff hole.
On the 60th anniversary of the birth of another dashing Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, a controlled, patient and mature Garcia lost an early 3-shot lead, fought back to force a playoff and walked toward Butler Cabin to slip on the green jacket to roars of Ser-gio, Ser-gio, Ser-gio.
“I thought I had it on 18, but the putt didn’t break,” Garcia said. “But I knew I was playing well. I felt today the calmest I have ever felt on a major Sunday. Even after making a couple bogeys, I stayed calm and I still believed.”
Garcia and Rose, who both shot 69, finished at 9-under 279 before the Spaniard ended his 0-for-73 streak in majors with three playoff shots on the 18th hole. Garcia, who joined Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal as the only players from Spain to win the Masters, had every reason to pack it in several times but remained patient and undaunted instead of becoming petulant and pouty as he has in the past.
A major moment came on the 13th when his drive wound up under a bush. After taking a penalty drop, Garcia punched out off of pine straw and then got up-and-down to save par. He then birdied the 14th from close range and produced a spectacular eagle on the 15th, when his second shot from 175 yards hit the flagstick. Three pars got him to the playoff and he needed just three shots to complete his Spanish conquest.
Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 champion, closed with a 68 to grab third at 6 under. In fourth at 5 under were Matt Kuchar, who aced the 16th and shot 67, and Thomas Pieters (68), who gave a strong run at becoming the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters in his first try.
Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, paired in the penultimate group, fell all the way down into a tie for 11th. Spieth, who finished second, first and second in his first three Masters, shot 75 while Fowler, who was trying to win his first major, shot 76.
Rory McIlroy never got untracked until late and shot 69 to finish in a tie for seventh; his pursuit of the career grand slam still ongoing.
2 unbelievable players and 2 great friends, but I couldn't be happier for @TheSergioGarcia. You deserve it all amigo!!— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) April 9, 2017
Phil Mickelson made an early run for his fourth green jacket but did himself in with a poor third round and finished in a tie for 22nd. Defending champion Danny Willett missed the cut, while world No. 1 Dustin Johnson was forced to withdraw before the first round with a back injury.
“Disappointed,” Rose said after he fell just short of winning his second major to go with his gold medal he won in Rio. “A lot of good things happened today. It was a good battle with Sergio. I thought I had it under control. He rallied and then I missed the par putt on 17.
“If I was going to lose, I’m glad I lost to Sergio. He’s had a lot of heartbreak.”
Garcia, who has complained in the past that the golf gods were out for him, got some gratuitous breaks this week, none more important than in the third round at the 13th – there’s the hole again. His second shot looked to be ready to nestle into Rae’s Creek but somehow the ball stayed up on the back, from where Garcia made birdie instead of a likely bogey.
While he once was his own worst enemy and often complained and provided excuses, he’s wiser now and about to get married. He’s been in a good mood for quite some time and rolled down Magnolia Lane into two very good signs.
His caddie bib number was 89. Last year’s winner, Danny Willett, had No. 89 for his bib number. And Willett, who put the green jacket on Garcia, won the Dubai Desert Classic two months before he won the 2016 Masters. Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic two months ago.
Throughout the week – especially during the brutal first two days when cold temperatures teamed with high winds – Garcia remained patient. His outstanding ball-striking was evident all week, his putter trustworthy. But his attitude was the 15th club.
His long-time caddie, Glenn Murray, said Garcia has calmed over the years. And Angela Aikens, the former Golf Channel reporter Garcia began dating 15 months ago and will marry this summer, said her future husband is in a good place on and off the golf course.
“I just think he’s still the same Sergio, but he has found a place mentally that he has been searching for,” she said. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with me or not, but he is in a good place.”
A very good place, indeed. One wear he can wear a green jacket.