AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Sergio Garcia’s first major win was supposed to be an Open Championship, PGA Championship or even a U.S. Open. It was not supposed to be a Masters. Garcia had finished in the top 10 here just once and felt more uncomfortable at Augusta National than arguably any other venue where the big ones are played.
Sergio Garcia’s first major win was supposed to be through the back door. He was supposed to go low in the fifth-to-last group on a Sunday while the leaders got stuck in a squall off the coast of Scotland or faded late at Bethpage Black.
Sergio Garcia’s first major win was supposed to be pressure-free and goofy. It was not supposed to be in the crucible at Augusta National with a Ryder Cup lion looking to put him away for good and nobody else on the course but himself and a slice of history.
But of course, Sergio Garcia flipped the script, closed like a champion and won the 2017 Masters.
Sergio Garcia won the freaking Masters.
And he did it in the most improbable way it could have possibly happened.
As Garcia and Rose walked to the 10th tee at Augusta tied at 8 under with nine holes left in tournament, the leaderboard that stands between Nos. 10 and 18 lorded over them. It ran red as golfers fought for low numbers, but the “8” next to Garcia’s name got posted the wrong way. The big circle was on top and the little one on the bottom. It looked funny and seemed ominous at the time. Now it seems like it was a harbinger.
The 81st Masters was about to be turned upside down.
After a first nine of 34, Garcia bogeyed Nos. 10 and 11, which was reminiscent of what Jordan Spieth did last year to lose the Masters. When he backed off a shot on No. 10, one patron yelped in a rather vulgar manner, “He’s pooping his pants.”
Rose parred both and put his hands around the week. He led by two over Garcia with just seven to play and few if any other challengers.
Garcia made par at No. 12, and then it went sideways, literally. He yanked his tee shot into the woods on No. 13. With Rose in the middle of the fairway, the balance of the entire event was teetering towards the Englishman. Garcia had to take an unplayable and said afterwards he knew he needed to accept fate and fight back.
“In the past, I would have started going at my caddie, ‘Oh, you know, why doesn’t it go through?’ I was like, ‘Well, if that’s what is supposed to happen, let it happen.’ Let’s try to make a great 5 here and see if we can put a hell of a finish to have a chance. And if not, we’ll shake Justin’s hand and congratulate him for winning.”
Despite a two-stroke separation between the final pairing, patrons strolled for the gates as 13 unfolded and roars were nary to be found. It felt like the event was ending with a whimper as superstars Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler faded one pairing ahead of Garcia and Rose. The Englishman seemed as if he was going to squeeze the life out of the Spaniard until there was nothing to do but don the jacket.
But somehow they both made par on No. 13. Garcia got up and down from 87 yards, and Rose missed his birdie putt after reaching the green in two.
Then Garcia ripped a 9-iron to six feet on No. 14 and made birdie. He bent and released a fist pump three feet off the ground like the piston of an engine pumping back and forth. It had the same trajectory of some of his long irons.
The grounds stirred for the first time all day. Garcia was back within one.
“Barring a great comeback from Sergio, it was mine to cruise to the house,” said Rose afterwards. “But it’s not always that easy. At the end of the day ... you’re going to win majors, and you’re going to lose majors, but you’ve got to be willing to lose them. You’ve got to put yourself out there. You’ve got to hit the top of the leaderboard. There’s a lot of pressure out there and if you’re not willing to enjoy it, then you’re not ready to win these tournaments. I loved it out there.”
Then came the 15th. A tournament that minutes before had seemed lifeless was about to get a the jolt it didn’t know it needed. Garcia pummeled a driver 330 yards to the center of the hill on No. 15 and stalked it. Rose would go for the green first some 25 yards back. Garcia stared at Rose for the majority of his pre-shot process and stared even longer as Rose put his second to the right of the green.
Garcia approached his ball. He knew what we all knew: This major -- maybe his last best shot at one -- hung on the next shot.
The 15th is the best hole to view as the sun sets on Sundays at Augusta. The pines that rise forever cast daunting shadows upon someone who is about to win a tournament that will change his life. The second shot on No. 15 descends over water flanked on all sides by patrons lathered up and ready to erupt.
Garcia thumped an 8-iron, held it for what felt like an hour, and uncoiled like the teenager who looked like he was going to win 10 majors. It was a moment that belied his age. He was 22 again swinging like 22-year-olds swing. His recoil was springy and beautiful. It is a swing that has conquered so many tournaments all over the planet, just never the ones everyone says count the most.
He stared into the fading sun and chased it all the way down the hill as the gauntlet of patrons paused for a split second and then exploded like a Rory McIlroy driver at impact. Garcia’s ball bounced to 15 feet.
They had waited all day for this. Garcia had waited his whole life.
“I hit one of the best shots I hit all week with the 8‑iron from 189,” said Garcia. “A little bit downbreeze, a little bit downhill. I think it hit the pin, if I’m correct. I mean, it bounced just short and took a big hop to the left, so I’m guessing that it kind of glanced the pin.”
He made the putt for an eagle -- the first in his last 452 holes at the Masters -- and was tied with Rose. Garcia punched the air as if trying to put his fist through two decades of history.
A stabbed putt on No. 16 after sidling his tee shot up next to the hole felt like it could have been the dagger for Garcia. But there he was bouncing back again with par on No. 17 as Rose made bogey.
This was an intrasquad Ryder Cup match. On they marched to 18, tied.
“I was very calm, much calmer than yesterday, much calmer than I’ve felt probably in any major championship on Sunday,” said Garcia. “If it for whatever reason didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.
“Obviously Justin wasn’t making it easy. He was playing extremely well. But I knew what I was capable of doing, and I believed that I could do it. Thanks to that, I was able to do it.”
This second nine was Garcia’s entire career in two hours -- a roller coaster of brilliance and heartbreak. Missing putts at the wrong time to the wrong guy and hitting cutting bullets that make your knees buckle around the most famous nine in golf.
Eagles and bogeys, fairways and woods, highs and lows.
“I’m not going to lie; it’s not the golf course that I’m most comfortable in,” said Garcia. “I’ve become more of a fader than a drawer of the ball, and this golf course is asking you to hit a lot of draws. But I knew that I could still work it around, you know, if I just accepted what was happening. So I’m very proud of that.”
Both hit the fairway and green on the 72nd hole. They climbed one last hill on No. 18, and each was received with a hero’s welcome. The scoreboard operators pumped their arms up and down in exuberance. Old men waved their caps and children followed suit.
Each had a putt to win the Masters.
Rose’s touched the cup but wouldn’t fall. Garcia never scared it. The narratives flowed.
Sergio can’t get it done when it counts. He will never win the big one.
On to a playoff.
“For some reason, when I get into playoffs, I’m quite comfortable,” said Garcia. “I feel like I’ve already had an amazing week no matter what happens, and you know, I can go out there and kind of freewheel it.”
They played No. 18 again, and it was bone-still. You could have heard a gnat sneeze, and I’m sure if Garcia did, he would have backed off his ball. On the playoff hole, Rose blew one right into the trees off the tee and pitched out. Garcia’s drive was perfect, and so was his second shot.
Rose hit his third to 15 feet to give himself a chance. He missed it, though, and the Masters was essentially over. Rose took his hat off and his caddie put his arm around him. All Garcia had to do was two-putt for par from 12 feet.
He only needed one.
What ensued was the exorcism of 73 of the most frustrating, angst-inducing demons you have ever witnessed. Garcia had won his his first major championship in his 74th attempt. He screamed and pumped his fists and hugged Rose like a brother.
“We obviously gave each other a big hug, and he said, ‘You know, nobody deserved it more than you do. I’m very happy for you. Enjoy it,’” Garcia relayed. “It was a great battle. He played awesome. I played nicely, too. So you know, it was nice to be able to battle that out with him, you know, throughout the whole day.”
Said Rose: “Sergio is obviously the best player not to have won a major, no longer. Any time one of those types of players, there’s a handful of them, and any time one of those guys gets that huge monkey off their back, I think it makes it a poignant major championship.”
Garcia turned to his caddie and screamed some more. He turned to the patrons and blew kisses. He closed eyes and belted out a thunderous “Vamos!”
He fell to the green on No. 18 and pounded the turf remembering those Spaniards who had gone before him. Seve Ballesteros won here twice. Jose Maria Olazabal did, too. The moment was completely overwhelming. How could it not be?
“[Olazabal] did mention a couple of things that did kind of touched my heart a little bit [this week],” said Garcia. “He said, ‘I’m not sharing my locker at the moment, and I hope that I get to do it with you.’
“He’s a great man and we’ve had a great relationship for many, many years. To be able to join him and Seve as Masters champions from Spain, it’s unbelievable.”
Garcia is not a boy anymore. He is 37 and about to be married. He’s a grown man whose childhood dream has just crystalized. He broke Tom Kite’s record of most majors played before snagging his first. Kite played in 72; Garcia in 74. He crested the mountain after a 19-year hike.
But here’s the thing about Sergio Garcia: He kind of just enjoyed the hike.
Garcia was an incredible player before this Masters. He has won nine times on the PGA Tour and another 11 on the European Tour. He’d bagged a Players Championship. He is one of the great Ryder Cup golfers of all time. He may have needed a major championship to touch off the resume, but he did not need it to complete his existence.
“I have a beautiful life,” said Garcia. “Major or no major, I said it many, many times: I have an amazing life. I have so many people that care for me and love me and support me. I feel so nicely surrounded.
“Obviously, this is something I wanted to do for a long time but, you know, it never felt like a horror movie. It felt like a little bit of a drama maybe, but obviously with a happy ending.”
It begs the question of what winning majors actually means. If Rose’s putt in regulation falls on the 72nd, is Garcia any more or less of a player? Of course not. He knows that. We know that. But it will be nice to never have to answer the questions again. It will also be nice to play the Masters until he’s 60.
Garcia winning majors has always felt like somebody shooting 62 at these tournaments -- like the golf gods were just not going to allow it. We have seen borderline divine intervention with golfers going for 62, and Garcia has been denied in sometimes-cruel fashion of golf’s grandest prizes.
Now he’s done it at the one he was never supposed to win. And he did it by coming back from down two with five to go against an ice-cold major winner.
He did it with an 8-iron for the history books and a putt that put a lump in a lot of throats on Sunday evening.
He did it at the very moment everyone thought for sure he could not get it done.
Going into Sunday, many thought Spieth would get redemption for last year. Instead, Garcia got redemption for an entire career. The irony is that once he made peace with his life and this struggle, it finally opened up for him. It means less than it used to for him professionally. It’s a perspective that sets him free.
Sergio Garcia did not need a major championship to validate his life or his career, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to revel in it any less. That doesn’t mean he’s going to pass on toasting to it and drinking it all in for the rest of the year. That doesn’t mean he’s going to forget to stick his head out of his car as he drives down Magnolia Lane back into the real world, scream wildly and exorcise another set of demons buried deep within.
“I‘m thrilled to be standing here this late on Sunday evening,” said Garcia. “It’s always a beautiful thing to have. It’s been an amazing week, and I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of my life.”