It was Sergio versus The Golf Gods at Augusta
Sergio Garcia’s tale in major tournaments is an epic.
No, not “epic” in the most recent sense of the word, now synonym to old slang like “radical.” Epic in the classical sense, as in Sergio Garcia is the kind of golfer that Homer would love.
Sergio Garcia’s journey through majors is the story of a man against the full onslaught of The Golf Gods. Sunday, he finally overcame his trial and arrived at Butler Cabin as the 2017 Masters Champion. Some major champions beat an amazing field. Some hold off a run by a worthy competitor. Some defeat the course, and in July they often triumph over the elements. Sergio’s Masters was unique. Sergio had to defeat The Golf Gods.
For the uninitiated: The Golf Gods are golfers’ stand in for all the bounces, rolls, breaks, and lip-outs that people encounter on the course. If a ball hits the base of a tree and bounces back into the fairway, you must have pleased them. If your putt looks like it has to fall but somehow bounces out of the cup, you have somehow angered the Golf Gods.
They are always referred to in the plural. Their rules are nebulous and change from golfer to golfer. Some of us, for example, are cursed to never look at our scorecards during a good round, or the good round will cease to be.
Sergio, however, is a special case. He is Golf Odysseus. He really, really got their goat at some point. When it comes to Sergio Garcia, the Golf Gods, and major tournaments, they cursed harder than an edgy comedian.
Sunday was not an easy day for the Masters Champion. Garcia started out strong, getting to -8 and opening up a comfortable lead on Justin Rose, but Rose came charging back to take the lead by piling up birdies at the end of the front nine.
Sergio lost ground between holes ten and twelve. It began to look as though he might not even finish second as he came to the thirteenth.
How appropriate that it would be a number associated with bad luck. Garcia took a big swing on the tee, hoping to muscle the ball into a position where he could make a run at an eagle and get back in the tournament. Instead, the ball found an unplayable lie and Sergio Garcia had to take a drop on pine straw. The worst kind of people who watch golf will contend that the pine straw may have moved. Officials wisely declined to assess a penalty, and Garcia went on to par the hole in the most difficult way possible.
After an eagle at fifteen, Sergio was once again tied with his playing partner for the lead. Rose reclaimed the lead, now -10, with a birdie on 16. Sergio had a putt to match, but it didn’t fall. Rose would bogey the 17th, tying the tournament again, and the crowd roared.
Golf crowds in America are not known for their universal love of Sergio Garcia. Augusta embraced him somewhere around hole 70 of the event. By then, he had braved a wild Saturday to start in the final pairing with a tie for the lead, separated himself, lost the lead, started to spiral, pulled out of it to come back and tie, and then fell out of that tie to find himself a stroke down heading into the final.
After years of second place finishes, top tens, the “best player without a major” title that hangs over entire golf careers, moments of poor form, and all manner of other peaks and valleys, golf fans—rather, “patrons” in the Augusta-approved language—saw what Garcia was facing and appreciated him as a man against the Golf Gods.
Rose bogeyed seventeen and the crowd around the eighteenth green erupted. The viewing audience was finally rooting for Sergio, we finally thought it was his time to win a tournament. He striped his drive. Rose did too. Then Justin Rose hit a shot that seemed to drift to the right, flirting with disaster. When the ball was in the air, it looked like the forces around golf had decided to let him have this one.
The Golf Gods were not ready. Rose’s ball took a sharp left turn on the fringe, spilling onto the middle of the green and giving the English golfer a decent birdie putt as if to say “not yet, mister Garcia.”
With the pressure on, Sergio put one in closer. He had a very makeable birdie putt.
Rose’s birdie putt was straighter than he imagined it would have been, and the door was open. Garcia, along with the television broadcast crew, expected a slight move to the left in his putt. Other forces had other ideas. “Not yet, mister Garcia.”
Augusta was ready for Sergio to win one. The crowd was ready for Sergio to win one. Golf in general was ready. The Golf Gods remained unmoved. On to a playoff.
Rose hit his drive off into the trees, Sergio hit his down the middle once again. It was there that the forces beyond golf finally relented. Rose laid up, and missed his eventual par putt, leaving two putts to victory when Garcia only needed one.
The man who had come oh so close at just 19 finally lifted a major. It took him until age 37. It may have taken some pleading to the powers that be from Seve Ballesteros, whose memory hung over the Sunday which would have been his sixtieth birthday.
It’s not the first time that They treated somebody harshly on golf’s biggest stages. Greg Norman became their plaything in 1996, shooting 78 on Sunday at Augusta in a round that was every bit as painful to watch as the score makes it seem. Colin Montgomerie finished second in five majors, only winning major tournaments that include the word “Senior.” Jean van de Velde was punished cruelly for hubris at the Open Championship in 1999. Last year, Jordan Spieth’s quest to repeat as Masters Champion was blown apart. The Golf Gods didn’t let him conquer the twelfth hole this year either, putting Spieth in the water once again. Yet even against them, Garcia’s trials seemed unique.
Perhaps his closest call before his Augusta triumph was the 1999 PGA, where many of us first saw Sergio. He hit some amazing shots that week, but fell short, mostly because Tiger Woods was also there. From there, Garcia eventually developed a reputation that golf fans in America simply didn’t care for. He might have been heckled more than any golfer before him, most famously at the US Open at Bethpage Black.
So why the fury from the powers that be? Perhaps it was his love of taking risks, but then again Phil Mickelson is incapable of laying up and has been highly decorated. His slow pre-shot routine used to anger crowds, but that was only part of his game for a couple of years. Sergio certainly said some controversial things in front of reporters over the years, but by the time that started he was already cursed.
That is to say, it’s really unclear where Sergio’s Odyssey began. I spent a fair amount of Sunday’s Augusta-approved broadcast wondering why people started rooting against Sergio in the first place. I can remember events, but by the time any of them happened he already had his negative reputation. It started before the waggle, before the ill-advised joke, before the meltdown on the course. Thinking about it now, it’s as though some unseen force—the Golf Gods, if you will—ordained him the Villain of Golf.
He was the guy paired up with Tiger when we wanted Tiger to win. He was paired up with Phil at Phil’s most likable points. A crowd once counted every time he would waggle before a shot.
It was no surprise, then, that even in the wake of an LPGA major changing based on a television viewer calling in a penalty that nobody agreed with, people tried to call Sergio on a penalty. So many people, in fact, that Jim Nantz referred to the volume of calls during the broadcast. There is no way I can imagine that happening to Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth.
It was no surprise that he had to step away from a ball during his round because a patron wouldn’t stop talking long enough for him to hit his shot. That’s how Sergio has gone through majors for years.
Perhaps it was the Ryder Cup. Sergio plays extremely well in those, and that’s part of the reason it’s considered a bit surprising when the United States wins as they did last year. As we also saw in September, that event can be a bit contentious. Yet at the end, just before he won over The Golf Gods, Sergio won over the crowd.
We’ll now move on to find whoever the new best player without a major is. The world of golf will ask that person relentless questions about four tournaments a year, as though they still need to prove themselves worthy to some unseen force. This passing of the torch might be the last signal that golf has moved on to a new generation of tour regulars.
When a sport goes from one generation to the next, we take a defining star from the outgoing era and start looking for the Next That Guy. Golf, of course, is currently on an impossible quest to find the Next Tiger, a mythical creature that exists in the same universe as Australia’s infamous Drop Bear. Along with that, they’ll need to eventually find the Next Phil—that is, a crowd favorite with a unique style of play against the rest of the field—as well as a Next Sergio.
The “best player to never win a major” title has been passed down for a long time now. Montgomerie had it for years. Phil Mickelson had it for a while, until he broke through. From that point on it was Sergio. The natural order of how we talk about this stuff dictates that by the end of the year we’ll have somebody else filling that position. There will never be another Tiger, but there will be another Sergio.
To Sergio Garcia’s credit, he no longer has to fill that role. He finally convinced the Golf Gods to lift that curse. It just took a journey to get there.
How long a journey? Put it this way: There’s a literary word for a story long enough to tell that tale.