Bravo you champion
Severiano Ballesteros dealt exclusively in theatre, raw entertainment and drama.
How fitting then that, on what would have been the great man’s 60th birthday, Augusta delivered an all-time classic, and with the right result to boot. Gripping, at times astonishing, and oh-so-worth the next-day fatigue, this was. And the agonising road to victory on Masters Sunday was the most apt microcosm of the 74-event struggle Sergio Garcia has endured to get his hands on a major title. And now he’s done it. He’s done it!
This hallowed turf rarely disappoints, but for three days, you simply couldn’t take your eyes off this one. Sure, it was a blow to lose Dustin Johnson at the 11th hour, but for 54 holes, the very cream of the golfing crop refused to relent, leaving us staring at the most tantalising of leaderboards going into the final day. Predicting a winner was akin to pulling a name out of a hat.
All eyes though, were on Sergio. His tale of woe and heartbreak in the majors is well documented. That grisly day at Carnoustie in 2007 was the epicentre of his failures in the cauldron of the biggest stage of them all, and it was now almost five years to the day when he had made the following statement: “"I've been trying for 13 years and I don't feel capable of winning. I'm not good enough for the majors. That's it."
Could we argue? His record, dogged by abysmal putting when the moment critique would arrive, said it all.
Yet he was fastest out the blocks on Sunday. Two birdies in the first three holes was just what he needed, and by the time he walked up to the 6th tee, he was three clear of a stuttering Justin Rose. But then the Englishman showed some steel in what was the first crucial momentum shift of the afternoon. What a two that was, and at a hole which gives up few birdies. He followed it up with a sublime red number at the 7th, but it was the 8th which appeared pivotal. Garcia hit by far the better tee shot, yet it was Rose who emerged with his birdie four.
The ninth followed a similar theme – Garcia hitting a superb approach, but unable to convert – shades of the old putting issues when it counted most. Both men hit poor tee shots at 10, but the Spaniard’s second was a shocker, and he did well to escape with bogey. He was now visibly ragged, his usually-dependable ball striking seemingly deserting him. An untidy bogey followed at 11, and it said much about the state of his game that Rose’s inability to close the door on him with a short birdie chance at the same hole appeared inconsequential.
Having got away with a par at the 12th, Garcia’s nadir came at the 13th, as he tried to fly the trees on the left, but hooked another awful tee-shot into no-man’s land. There he stood: two shots adrift, trying to find a place to take his penalty drop next to Rae’s Creek, staring down the barrel of more self-inflicted pain, while Rose stood in the middle of the fairway, arbitrarily flicking through his yardage book, trying to distract himself from what now appeared to be the certain prospect of a Masters triumph. It was hard to watch.
Hard to watch because of the empathy you felt for Sergio, but harder still because this Masters had kept us on tenterhooks for 63 holes, yet now appeared to be robbing us of the climax we so deserved. But then, mercifully, another twist. Sergio summoned his inner Seve. A par out of nowhere. Rose blinked. Was there hope after all?
Sergio chose the perfect time to relocate his swing to produce a birdie at 14, but it was the 15th where the roof came flying off. Ironically, it was the same hole that had proved Seve’s undoing 31 years ago in what was arguably the greatest Masters in history. Sergio set the record straight on his idol’s behalf with a sensational approach, and followed it up with, by his at-time mediocre standards, a tremendous putt to bank the eagle.
Rose did well to respond with a damage-limiting birdie, but Garcia was in the zone by the time he knocked it close at 16, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world on his side. Again though, the Englishman responded, this time with a helping hand from one of Augusta’s invisible deities, and his tee shot hopped up to within 12 feet.
And then a beautiful moment of sportsmanship, as Garcia hung back to slip Rose a low five. The 37-year old’s popularity hasn’t always been a given. Since we saw that 19-year old bounding up the fairways of Medinah at the 1999 PGA, hugging Tiger Woods’ mom in defeat, and stealing our hearts, there have been periods of surliness, bitterness and even controversial racial slurs. But here he was with his mate, finding time to savour the moment and smile, despite unimaginable tension.
They got to the famous old green, but it was Rose’s putt which was pure; Garcia’s follow up, in turn, was weak. Suddenly it was Rose’s to lose!
More drama then ensued, as we were shown replays of Garcia shifting pine needles on 13 after his penalty drop. Millions held their breath. Surely not? Not this way? His ball shifted. It oscillated. It did pretty much everything except change position. We breathed again. As you were, gents.
Then Sergio was tossed a lifeline, as Rose found sand. This time it was he who hit a poor putt under pressure. The show marched on to the 18th, with nothing separating these two gladiators. They bombed drives up the most intimidating of corridors, but it was Garcia who drew first blood with the most glorious of approaches to 7 feet. Pure, authentic, elegant. The antithesis of Rose’s subsequent effort; a slippery spin out to the right. But again the gods smiled upon him as his ball slung to the left, finishing 12 feet from the cup; his the considerably easier of the two birdie putts.
Rose’s effort was by no means dreadful, but he’d over-borrowed. Suddenly it was Sergio’s time. His moment to lay all those ghosts to rest. He wasted little time too. Confidence? Or a display of false bravado to rip off the band aid?
The latter sadly, resulting in a dreadful push which headed down the wrong street, despite an attempt to divert blame on his and his caddie’s read.
A playoff. Fading light. A chill in the air. Imposing shadows. Can there be a more eerily breathtaking setting in sport for such a final showdown? It proved too much for Rose in the end, and he was gazumped by it all. After this most enthralling, unpredictable of duels, his race was run. Garcia had two putts for the win. By now his destiny was all-but sealed. But there remained business to be taken care of. This extraordinary final round had been characterised as much by missed opportunities and mistakes as it was by the duo’s brilliance. It needed a fitting, stylish end. Sergio, for all those putts that have slipped by the cup in years gone by, also needed to show that he could seize victory, rather than be handed it as a result of another man’s misfortunes.
And, like a true, thoroughly-deserving champion, he stepped up to the plate.
What a celebration, what a relief: he was now a major winner. Forever! The end of a most painful, character-building journey. But the beginning of a new one too. A journey sans the mist, monkeys and self-doubt that have tormented him until now. And one which, surely, will see him close the gap on the legend which inspired him to pick up a golf club in the first place. Bravo, you legend. Bravo.