On what would have been the 60th birthday of Seve Ballesteros, winner of the Masters in 1980 and 1983, 37-year-old fellow-Spaniard Sergio Garcia yesterday won the 81st Masters Tournament at Augusta National, his 74th attempt to capture his first major championship. After he came so close to winning the USPGA in 1999, no one thought he would have to wait so long. But he was worth it.
There were many story lines during this Masters, as so often, but seldom has the denouement left one feeling that really there was only one that ultimately mattered. So, no, Rory McIlroy couldn’t complete the career Grand Slam; a week during which his game was always just a bit off left him six shots out of the playoff in which Garcia prevailed over Justin Rose. And, no, Jordan Spieth couldn’t keep up his run of always finishing in the top-two at Augusta; he finished eight back after starting the final round two off the pace but in the end it was perhaps too much to expect him to recover from a quadruple-bogey nine at the 15th on Thursday – his second quad in successive rounds at Augusta! – and a 10-shot deficit after day one. Also, yes, Charley Hoffman did produce one of the finest opening rounds in Masters history, a seven-under-par 65 in strong winds that meant the field’s average score was 75 and only one other player broke 70, but on Sunday he had a 78 to finish way in arrears. On a gloriously sunny afternoon, this Masters came down to a battle between two friends and erstwhile Ryder Cup colleagues: Garcia and his playing partner Rose, the 2013 US Open champion and reigning Olympic champion.
Weather-wise, the week had begun in tempestuous fashion. Play on the first official practice day, Monday, was cancelled around lunch time due to a tornado warning. On Wednesday, the traditional par-3 competition was abandoned because of the thunderstorms battering the city. “The safety of everyone on our grounds was the determining factor in the decision to close,” said Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National. I’m sorry, though, but in a novel I’d just read, Amen Corner by Rick Shefchik, the chairman doesn’t halt the tournament even though there’s a murdering lunatic at large on the property with a load of explosives! Still, that’s fiction for you.
A fiction writer would probably have come up with something less lame as the reason for the withdrawal of the pre-tournament favourite than the fact that he’d slipped on some stairs and badly hurt his back. That was the fate that befell Dustin Johnson, who had won his previous three tournaments. He made it as far at the first tee on Thursday before realising he couldn’t swing well enough to give it a go. The defending champion, Danny Willett, at least got to play the tournament, but only for two days. On Thursday he recovered from a 6-6 start to shoot 73. His start on Friday was even worse: he opened with an eight. He didn’t make the cut.
Garcia’s career has been characterised by his inability to make a putt: not any old putt, for he has won more than enough tournaments and prize-money to prove that he is a top-class player of longstanding, but the putt when it really mattered – other than in the Ryder Cup, of course, when he has frequently been mean putting machine. Hence he had four times been a runner-up in a major but never a champion. But his current putter, the TaylorMade Spider Red model, fundamentally produced the goods yesterday, even if it was not wholly infallible.
The two leaders began at six under par. Two birdies for Garcia and a bogey for Rose meant that after five holes the Spaniard led by three. He was surely on his way? Three successive birdies from Rose then meant they were tied again after the 8th. The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday, goes the old saying, and initially that seemed to be the end for Sergio. He bogeyed 10 and 11 and when he hooked his drive into the trees on the par-five 13th, he looked likely doomed. But his putter came through with the ten-footer he had for his par and when Justin couldn’t convert his birdie from six feet, there remained two shots in it. There was just one after Sergio made another tricky putt, a six-foot downhiller for birdie at the 14th.
The 15th, somewhat poignantly, was a reverse reminiscence of 1986, when Seve hit his second shot into the water shortly after a rampaging Jack Nicklaus had eagled the hole on his way to the title. But now it was the Spaniard who hit a magnificent iron shot right at the stick and sank the putt for eagle (his first in 452 holes at Augusta). Rose followed him in with a birdie and they were tied again. Three to play.
Rose birdied the 16th from eight feet while Garcia missed from inside him. ‘Here we go again’, feared his fans. Rose then bogeyed 17 while Garcia parred it. Both nine under par playing the last, Rose’s approach got a good bounce to roll to within ten feet of the hole. Garcia struck a wonderful shot, again over the stick to within six feet. Rose missed and then, with the putt of a lifetime confronting him, so did Garcia.
Paradise was only briefly lost. Playing the 18th again, Rose pushed his drive into the trees and badly mishit his escape shot. He was barely ahead of where Garcia’s drive had finished. Sergio’s second shot was another beauty, this time to 12 feet. Rose manfully hit his third to five yards but when this putt, too, slid by, his friend and rival had two putts for the Masters. He only needed one.
“It has been a long time coming,” said the victor with vast understatement. “To join Seve and José [Maria Olazábal, as Spanish Masters champions], my two idols, is amazing. I knew I was playing well. I felt the calmest I ever have in major.” With typical class, Justin said: “It is disappointing to come so close. I felt in control until the end. But I’m really happy for Sergio. I’d love to be wearing the green jacket but if it wasn’t me then I’m glad it’s him.”
This past Friday I spoke to Carmen Botin, Seve’s ex-wife. “Poor Sergio,” she said. “He is so good but he’s just not managed to take that chance for greatness. It would be fantastic if he won.” Now he has.
I am grateful to an American friend for the information that apparently a bet on Roger Federer to win the Australian Open and Sergio Garcia to win the Masters would have brought a return of 183-1. Other than with the bookies, that would have been a mightily popular win-double. Roger leads Sergio 18-1 in the career majors count but at least the latter is now up and running. At last. And it’s not the end of his good news for 2018. He and his fiancée, Angela Akins, will be getting married this summer. He got his perfect wedding present a few months early.
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