Seve Ballesteros would have so loved this Masters, played over this heaven on earth on what would have been his 60th birthday.
Wasn’t it two-time Masters champ Ballesteros, dead far too young in 2011, who put Spanish golf on the map? Didn’t his genius lie in his ability to turn car wrecks into victory parades? Wouldn’t he have been proud of the way countryman Sergio Garcia followed that very game plan Sunday?
Playing on the same edge of calamity as his idol, snatching his long-overdue first major title with the dramatic flair of an air-sea rescue, Garcia outlasted England’s Justin Rose on the day’s 19th hole to join the Masters elite.
Go ahead and put that slander of “best player to never win a major” to bed. At 37, playing in his 74th major, Garcia finally achieved the status that at first had been promised him as a teenager and then sometimes cruelly denied him as his hair thinned and he tilted toward middle age.
And for the second consecutive year, the Masters had itself an international champion, Garcia following the 2016 victory of England’s Danny Willett. No room for xenophobia Sunday. This was an undeniably popular victory for every fan of resilience and the power of positive change. How the patrons did go on when Garcia made his 12-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole — when a two-putt would have done — finally shaking free of Englishman Justin Rose.
And how Garcia returned the favor, blowing kisses in all directions, howling with long denied delight, at one point crouching on the green and pounding the perfect grass with glee.
“I think it makes it a poignant major championship,” Rose had to admit.
It was he who ultimately blinked when pushing his drive off the first playoff hole, No. 18, right into the foliage. All Rose could do was punch out barely past Garcia’s pinpoint drive. Then watch as Garcia applied all the pressure by hitting his approach to 12 feet. It made no difference what Rose did from there (he bogeyed). Because Garcia’s birdie putt swirled around the hole and where other big putts in his life may have spun out, this one dropped.
For most of the day, all the attention was focused on these two.
All the other players in this drama vacated the stage practically before the end of the first act. There had been some heft behind them at the start of the day. Their closest pursuers included Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, and lesser lights Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman. But they all faded away into the background, just so many ferns in the forest. None of them saw the sunny side of par Sunday. Those five shot a combined 16 over par.
The others were scarcely missed. Even Spieth, who with a victory and two seconds in his three previous appearances has cast such a large shadow over this tournament.
In fact, other than hitting a ball in the water at No. 12 on Sunday, this “Spieth” was all but unrecognizable, an imposter in Under Armour. Someone who vaguely resembled him birdied three of his last four holes just to shoot 75 shot, which matched his first-round number and the highest score in his 16 lifetime Masters rounds.
There would be no clutter obscuring Garcia’s breakthrough moment. To think that it was just five years ago at this tournament that a frustrated Garcia declared that he just may not possess the right stuff to win a major, that, “I need to play for second or third place.”
But entering Sunday’s final round, the new, improved Garcia was practically serene. “I was very calm, much calmer than yesterday, much calmer than I’ve felt probably in any major championship on Sunday,” he said.
He summed up the difference between then and now succinctly: “I accepted what Augusta (National) gives and takes.”
Oh, it took. It stripped Garcia right down to his deepest doubts when he entered the back nine Sunday. He had come out charging like the bull in the arena, blasting drives of 311 and 360 yards on his first two holes, and recording birdies on two of his first three. He led by as many as three over Rose after five holes, but made the turn tied after Rose rattled off three straight birdies.
Then the old Garcia showed himself briefly. Bothered, he backed off his approach to 10 and hit it into the brush. He went astray both right and left on No. 11. His two bogeys left him two strokes behind Rose.
And then Augusta so gloriously gave.
When Garcia pushed his drive on the par 5 13th so far into the azaleas that he had to declare an unplayable lie, all appeared so dismally familiar. Another Garcia retreat. But the oddest thing happened. He took his penalty, did his dutiful layup, hit the next shot to seven feet and made the putt that saved his round. The prettiest little par ever.
Asked what made him the most proud Sunday, Garcia answered, “how positive I stayed even when things weren’t going that well on 10 and 11.”
Not satisfied with channeling one Spanish golfing icon, Garcia then matched another. Jose Maria Olazabal eagled the par 5 15th to win in 1994. Garcia did likewise on Sunday, making a 14-foot putt to tie Rose.
Garcia would miss a 6-foot putt on No. 16 and a 5-footer on the 72nd hole that would have made his work so much easier. But he doesn’t do anything nice and easy.
“But I knew I was playing well. I was very calm, much calmer than yesterday, much calmer than I’ve felt probably in any in any major championship on Sunday,” he said.
It was Olazabal who messaged Garcia later, offering to share his locker in the secluded nook reserved for Augusta National champions with his countryman.
“So,” Garcia said to the club, “if you guys wouldn’t mind putting me with José, it would be great.”
And Seve will join them there in spirit.