Closing in on his first major in just his second attempt at the 1999 US PGA Championship, Sergio Garcia famously said before the final round’s tee-off 18 years ago, “Guys, I’m having so much fun. This is so great, I don’t even care if I win.”
Garcia was one shot behind Tiger Woods going into the final hole. That’s also how much he lost the US PGA Championship by. And ‘one shot behind Woods’ is also where he has remained throughout the next couple of decades.
Except that the accumulation of that narrow deficit has left contrasting careers between two athletes that were supposed to define an era in golf, with Woods mustering 14 majors and Garcia collecting a gamut of near-wins.
That was until Sunday when Garcia broke his duck at the majors 73 attempts after he famously said he was having too much fun to care about winning — 71 of them consecutive, which is the longest current streak. And the emotions on display, when the Spaniard nailed a putt in the playoff to clinch the title, showed that the 37-year-old truly has learned how to care.
Of course, when you’re 19 and already a major contender in your second take, you believe that many more opportunities would come, and that you’d bag one sooner rather than later. And of course many chances did come, but the first breakthrough never did.
It was in fact at the same tournament five years ago that Garcia famously said he won’t ever win a major, such was the piled up frustration over the course of what has been a career of near misses. “That’s the reality. I’m not good enough and today I know it. After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the majors. That’s it,” he said in 2012.
Among the most excruciatingly close calls was the 2007 Open Championship. Being ‘almost there’ after a four-hole playoff was visibly torturous for Garcia, especially after he had missed a par putt by an inch to win after leading by a shot going into the 18th.
Padraig Harrington, the man who edged him out 10 years ago, told RTE 2fm’s Game On show after Garcia’s Masters win: “I gave him every out I possibly could have at the 2007 Open. I was as polite as I could and was as generous as I could be, but he was a very sore loser. And he continued to be a very sore loser. Clearly, after that, we have had a very sticky (relationship).”
One can imagine why being a ‘sore loser’ might have come naturally to one of the most gifted golfers of his generation who had virtually splashed himself all over the Top 10 at majors barring number 1, before Sunday.
Overall, Garcia finished runners-up at majors four times including twice at the PGA in 1999 and 2008 and twice at the Open — the most recent in 2014.
But Garcia finally has shunned the tag of the ‘best golfer never to win a major’. He is now the third Spanish golfer to become Masters champion, after Ballesteros (1980 and 1983) and Jose-Maria Olazabal (1994 and 1999). That the win came on what would’ve been Ballesteros 60th birthday made it all the more special for the Spaniard.
“This is amazing. To do it on his 60th birthday and to join him and Olazabal, my two idols in golf my whole life, it’s something amazing,” Garcia said after the win. “Jose sent me a text on Wednesday night telling me how much he believed in me. And what I needed to do, just pretty much to believe in myself. To be calm and not let things get to me that I’ve done in the past.
The tournament started for Garcia much like many of his showings over the years. There was promise and it was coupled with the undoubted ability required to win a major. But, again, the longer you go on without achieving something the more unlikely it becomes.
Garcia’s second round mirrored his career. Astounding for all the right reasons in the beginning, and then for the wrong reasons as the round tailed down with self-inflicted misery, controversy, and eventually falling short of ‘what could have been’.
It was almost another ‘almost win’ for Garcia, with a final round showing that was like a highlight reel from his career.
After going up three strokes against his good friend Justin Rose, Garcia conjured bogeys on 10 and 11 to go two shots behind the Englishman. He then hit a tee shot into the trees on 13, leaving him with an unplayable tie. But, again, he somehow ended up with a par after a brilliant comeback on the hole, while Rose missed a gilt-edged birdie. And now was the time when Garcia traditionally goes AWOL to settle for a customary, and an increasingly honorary, slot in the top 10.
But Garcia pulled off a birdie and an eagle to tie Rose at –9. And since there’s no Sergio without the drama, a missed birdie putt on 16 gave the Englishman the lead, which was once again slashed leaving the duo tied at -9 heading into the final hole.
One could’ve bet their bottom dollar that it was going to be déjà vu all over again, when missed Garcia a 7-foot downhill putt that would’ve given him the title in regular play after Rose missed a birdie of his own.
The playoff that followed was in many ways a sudden death for Garcia’s career. There is only so many times that one can embrace the painful near misses.
But it was Rose who crumbled with a bogey, leaving Garcia two putts distancing 12 feet to win the elusive first major. He only needed one.
The ecstasy on display was the climax that makes sports so special. What made it even more amazing was the genuine happiness that Rose exhibited for his longtime buddy. These two men who have grown up playing with, and against, one another gave us all a contest that will go down as one of the great duels in the history of the Masters — not only because of the quality of golf on display, and the drama that took us down to the wire, but also the sportsmanship and camaraderie between two athletes celebrating each other stepping closer to the biggest golfing accolade at the other’s expense.
Augusta patrons chanted “Garcia, Garcia,” as Sergio kneeled in an emotional mélange of disbelief and euphoria. Sergio Garcia Masters champion… let’s all take a moment to let that sink in.