SER­GIO … BET­TER LATE THAN NEVER

The golf­ing world had al­most lost faith in Ser­gio Gar­cia ever win­ning a ma­jor cham­pi­onship. Now older and a bit wiser, he fi­nally de­liv­ered on one of golf’s big­gest stages at the 81st Mas­ters Tour­na­ment.

Golf Australia - - NEWS - WORDS BREN­DAN JAMES AT AU­GUSTA NA­TIONAL GC PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GETTY IM­AGES

It was 18 years and 74 ma­jor starts in the mak­ing but Ser­gio Gar­cia can now be fi­nally called a ma­jor cham­pion. Bren­dan James re­ports from Au­gusta Na­tional.

It was 18 years and 74 ma­jor starts in the mak­ing but Ser­gio Gar­cia can now be fi­nally called a ma­jor cham­pion. In length­en­ing shad­ows at Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club, the 37-year-old rolled in a 12-footer for birdie on the first play-o hole to de­feat Ry­der Cup team­mate Justin Rose and win the 81st Mas­ters Tour­na­ment.

He joins his child­hood idols and fel­low Spa­niards Seve Balles­teros (1980, 1983) and José María Olazábal (1994, 1999) as an owner of a green jacket.

Gar­cia fi­nally de­liv­ered on the huge prom­ise he showed when he was a run­ner-up to Tiger Woods as a 19-year-old at the 1999 PGA Cham­pi­onship.

Af­ter nearly two decades, the golf­ing world had all but lost faith in Gar­cia ever break­ing through at a ma­jor. With so much bag­gage from four near misses and a host of other op­por­tu­ni­ties over the years, it was a faith that had even tested the man him­self.

“I’m very happy but I don’t feel any dier­ent,” Gar­cia said of fi­nally win­ning. “I’m ob­vi­ously thrilled about what hap­pened here to­day, but I’m still the same guy. I’m still the same goofy guy, so that’s not go­ing to change.

“I think the prob­lem is, be­cause where my head was at some­times, I did think about, am I ever go­ing to win one. I’ve had so many good chances and ei­ther I lost them or some­one has done some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary to beat me. So it did cross my mind.

“But lately, I’ve been think­ing a lit­tle bit, a lit­tle bit more pos­i­tive. And, kind of ac­cept­ing, too, that if it for what­ever rea­son it didn’t hap­pen (win­ning a ma­jor), my life is still go­ing to go on. It’s not go­ing to be a disas­ter.”

But the stars aligned for Gar­cia this week at Au­gusta.

As the field was bat­tered by strong winds on Thurs­day, he made 17 pars and a lone birdie to post a 71, which was six shots be­hind first round leader Charley Ho man. Three bo­gies were wiped clean by six birdies in the sec­ond round and he grabbed a share of the half­way lead at four un­der with Ho man, Bel­gian Thomas Pi­eters and Amer­i­can Rickie Fowler.

Still, much of the talk in Au­gusta was about those lurk­ing three and four shots o the lead. Gar­cia was men­tioned as a chance in brief dis­patches.

A third round 70 kept him well and truly in the mix as he shared the lead with Rose af­ter 54 holes at six un­der.

In every Mas­ters the player who even­tu­ally dons the green jacket can look back and point to a mo­ment where they got a lucky break or had a stroke of for­tune. Gar­cia’s came on Satur­day af­ter­noon on the 13th hole when his approach into the par-5 from 212 yards, hit the bank in front of the green and trick­led down the slope to­wards the wa­ter. In­stead of get­ting wet, it stopped on a small, grass ledge sit­ting just above the wa­ter line. From there, he chipped to a foot and tapped in for birdie – turn­ing a six into a four.

When Gar­cia birdied two of the first three holes of the fi­nal round, the feel­ing among the gallery at Au­gusta was one of be­lief that he would fi­nally win a ma­jor. Through five holes, he led his near­est pur­suer, Rose, by three strokes and that be­lief in­ten­si­fied.

Three con­sec­u­tive birdies from Rose from the 6th hole, had him level peg­ging with Ser­gio and the pair had sep­a­rated them­selves from the pelo­ton. As they headed into Au­gusta’s back nine it was all set-up for a good old-fash­ioned dog­fight, and the com­bat­ants didn’t dis­ap­point.

Gar­cia threw two shots away with loose shots on 10 and 11, while Rose main­tained his cool be­hind the re­flec­tor sun­nies he now sports.

An­other way­ward drive at the 13th forced the Spa­niard to take an un­playable lie drop from left of the creek lin­ing the left edge of the hole. He punched out, pitched onto the green

I DID THINK ABOUT, AM I EVER GO­ING TO WIN ONE (A MA­JOR). I’VE HAD SO MANY GOOD CHANCES AND EI­THER I LOST THEM OR SOME­ONE HAS DONE SOME­THING EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY TO BEAT ME. – SER­GIO GAR­CIA

and made his par-sav­ing putt from seven feet. When Rose three-putted from the back edge of the green, the two-shot sta­tus quo re­mained but there was a dis­tinct shift in mo­men­tum. Gar­cia was buoyed, while Rose had taken a kick in the guts.

The par-save kicked Gar­cia into gear. He hit a 9-iron from 150 yards into the 14th green and made the putt for birdie. At the par-5 15th, he nailed an 8-iron from 189 yards into 14 feet and made the putt for ea­gle. Rose birdied and the two were level again.

Rose grabbed the lead by one with a birdie at 16, but gave that shot back at the next when his drive went into the trees right and he punched a shot into the bunker short, and was un­able to get up and down for his par.

The two went to the 18th tee tied at nine un­der and af­ter reg­u­la­tion play they re­mained locked, af­ter Rose missed his birdie from seven feet and Gar­cia, for the win, saw his five foot down­hiller slip by the right edge.

The Spa­niard didn’t make the same mis­take in the play-o†. When Rose was forced to punch out from un­der trees be­side the 18th fair­way, Gar­cia hit his approach onto the green, about 12-foot right of the flag. When Rose failed to make his par, Gar­cia had two putts for the win, but he only needed one.

The enor­mous gallery sur­round­ing the 18th green rose with Gar­cia as his putt trick­led into the left side of the cup. The first per­son there to con­grat­u­late him was Rose, who warmly em­braced him.

Then, with the sud­den re­al­i­sa­tion that the wait to win a ma­jor was over, Gar­cia dropped to his knees and started punch­ing the green. Af­ter 18 years, he had won and he had done it on a course he felt he would never win on.

“A lot of those things came through my mind,” said Gar­cia of his think­ing as he beat his fists into the green. “Some of the mo­ments I’ve had here at Au­gusta that maybe I haven’t en­joyed as much and how stupid I re­ally was try­ing to fight against some­thing that you can’t fight; and how proud I was of ac­cept­ing things.

“This week, I’ve done it bet­ter than I’ve ever had, and you know, be­cause of that, I’ve looked

at the course in a di er­ent way through­out the whole week.

“I’m not go­ing to lie; it’s not the golf course that I’m most com­fort­able in, be­cause 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.”

He is also proud of the fact he can now call him­self a Mas­ters cham­pion along­side his idols – the late Seve Balles­teros, who would have turned 60 on Mas­ters Sun­day, and José María Olazábal, who sent him an en­cour­ag­ing text mes­sage on the eve of the tour­na­ment.

“I think that ob­vi­ously José María’s (text) was very spe­cial be­cause he’s my idol,” Gar­cia said. “He’s one; him and Seve are both my golf­ing idols since I was very, very lit­tle. José he men­tioned, you know what you have to do, just be­lieve in your­self.

“Ob­vi­ously he did men­tion a cou­ple of things that did kind of touch my heart a lit­tle bit. 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 has al­ways played with great pas­sion, wear­ing his heart on his sleeve. But his new­found seren­ity could be the tonic for more ma­jor vic­to­ries.

“Every­body that is around me that is help­ing me; that is mak­ing me not only a bet­ter golfer but a bet­ter per­son,” he said. “You know, it’s been great. It’s not easy, be­cause I know how much of a hard-headed man I can be some­times, but it’s been great.

“For me, the most pos­i­tive thing is that I feel like I have so much room for im­prove­ment. So if I’m here and pretty much just started, I’m ex­cited.

“Ob­vi­ously I’m 37. I’m not 22 or 25 any­more, but I feel I still have a lot of great years in me and I’m ex­cited for those.”

2016 Mas­ters cham­pion Danny Wil­lett helps Gar­cia into his green jacket.

Gar­cia was em­braced by a gal­lant Justin Rose af­ter de­feat­ing him on the first play­off hole. Ser­gio Gar­cia emo­tion­ally cel­e­brates his Mas­ters win­ning birdie putt.

The Spa­niard points to the heav­ens to ac­knowl­edge his hero Seve Balles­teros.

De­spite a penalty drop, Gar­cia man­aged to save his par at the par-5 13th hole.

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