Sergio Garcia: A great Masters story we didn’t see coming

8:20 a.m. Monday, April 10, 2017 Golf
An emotional Sergio Garcia celebrates after winning the Masters in a one-hole playoff Sunday over Justin Rose at Augusta National Golf Club. It was the first major win in Garcia’s 74th attempt. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

This is why we watch sports — not just to see who wins or loses but for the unscripted and unexpected stories that only the competition can give us.

A 19-year-old old dazzles us with his talent and creativity, then disappoints us with his defeats, then maddens us with comments like, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.” (We do not take surrender well, as a sports universe.)

Eighteen years later, the same guy, or at least a guy with the same name, shows up at Augusta National for the 74th major of his career and we think, “Really? You again?” Then he charges to the lead, loses it, bogeys the first two holes of the back nine, rebounds from adversity, wins over fans (Wait, what’s happening?), blows the biggest putt of his career (Aha! There he is!) and then, before the sun sets on a perfect Masters Sunday, he rewrites his entire career legacy.

This is why we watch sports — not to see Sergio Garcia bow out again but to watch him emerge as one of sports’ greatest and most unlikely stories.

To some degree, we could see the Chicago Cubs’ World Series and Cleveland’s NBA championships coming. Not this. Not now. Not at 37. Not at the Masters

“On the drive this morning to the course, I felt very calm, the calmest I ever felt on the Sunday of a major,” Garcia said. “Even after the two bogeys, I felt there were some holes I could go after. I felt I would have my chances.”

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Sergio Garcia has won his first Masters title. Beating Justin Rose in a playoff for the 1st major title of Garcia’s career.

Garcia won his first major at the club that tormented him most, beating Justin Rose in a playoff that lasted one-hole. Maybe even more remarkable than the fact he was the lone competitor in the field to shoot all four rounds under par (71-69-70-69) was that he had galleries screaming for him with every shot. He showed passion and drive and the emotion of the same 19-year-old who did a mid-air scissor kick after a shot in the 1999 PGA Championship.

He finished second to Tiger Woods that year. But most believed the two would share the stage on golf’s immediate future. That never happened. But when Garcia dropped in a birdie putt on hole No. 18 in overtime, Woods was one of the first to Tweet congratulations: “Congrats @TheSergioGarcia. Well earned.”

Garcia showed us he cared. That alone would’ve made it a magical week. He hadn’t just fallen short of expectations in his career, he had become unlikable. He won a lot of money. He spent a lot of time in the world rankings’ top 10. But he never won a major and, worse, appeared blasé about the whole thing.

His words after his flabby 77 at the 2012 Masters: “In 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

His words when he was leading after the first round in Augusta a year later: “Obviously it’s not my favorite place in the world. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

Imagine Eyeore giving a halftime speech.

But this guy is different. He has grown up. He credits his fiancée, Angela Akins, a former college golfer and Golf Channel reporter, with giving him needed support and maybe providing him with both perspective and a needed competitive spirit.

Asked after the win if he was most proud of a shot or the demonstration of his character, he quickly said the latter. He referenced his tee shot on No. 13, which landed under some distant azaleas and became embedded in pine straw.

“In the past, I would’ve started going at my caddie,” he said. “Now I’m like, ‘If that’s what’s supposed to happen, let it happen. Let’s see if we can have a hell of finish. And if not, we’ll shake Justin’s hand when it’s over.’”

How does it feel to finally win a major after so much torment, so much criticism?

“To be totally honest, I’m very happy but I don’t feel any different,” he said. “I’m obviously thrilled. But I’m still the same goofy guy. The problem is where my head was at sometimes. Did I think, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’ It did cross my mind. But lately I’ve been getting some good help and thinking a little bit different. More positive. And accepting. If it didn’t happen, my life would go on.”

Sergio Garcia: our Buddha.

He saved par after that dreadful tee shot on 13. He dribbled in a birdie on 14 to pull to within one shot of Rose. He almost holed his second shot at 15 but eagled to pull into a tie for the lead.

Three holes later, Garcia stood over a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th for the win. He tapped it wide right.

“I hit that putt twice in practice and both times it went left,” he said.

But …

“I was very calm. I knew what I was capable of doing.”

Who is this guy?

In the overtime hole, Garcia knocked his second shot to 12 feet of the hole. With Rose in with a bogey-5, Garcia had two shots to play with. He needed only one. Then he dropped into a crouch and pounded the green in celebration.

He was surrounded by fans, family and friends. His parents, Victor and Consuelo, were there with him. The two were running a pro shop in Castellon, Spain, when Consuelo went into labor with Sergio. There were congratulations from other champions later at the green jacket ceremony. He’s in the club now.

Back in Spain, they celebrated. Jose Maria Olazabal, a two-time Masters winner, sent him a letter earlier in the week that read, “I’m not sharing my locker with anyone at the moment, but I hope to share it with you.”

In heaven, we can assume there was another celebration. Sunday would have been the 60th birthday of another Spaniard and two-time Masters winner, Seve Ballesteros.

“I’m sure he helped a little bit with some of those shots, some putts,” Garcia said. “It’s been an amazing week. I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of my life.”

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