At Players, the Sergio Garcia lovefest rolls on

Sergio Garcia Getty Images

At Players, the Sergio Garcia lovefest rolls on

PGA Tour

At Players, the Sergio Garcia lovefest rolls on

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – One month after his final, glorious birdie putt had vanished from sight on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club, delivering a crisply pressed green jacket that he had waited nearly two decades to wear, Sergio Garcia and the El Nino Lovefest Tour have moved south, to The Players.

Dustin Johnson is on a great run, and Rory McIlroy just got married and signed a lucrative new equipment deal. Still, it’s difficult to believe that there is a golfer on the PGA Tour today in any better place than Garcia, who last month landed his first major and this summer, at 37, will become a married man.

This week marks Garcia’s first back out on Tour since his Masters breakthrough, where he finally won in his 74th major championship start, and the outpouring of support that envelopes him the way a winter blanket would continues to leave him warm. Shawn Stefani is a strapping pro, 6 feet, 2 inches, and solid, built more like a linebacker than a Tour pro; Garcia said the two don’t even see each other very often. But when Stefani approached Garcia on the practice tee Monday, he collected the smaller Spaniard in a tight bear hug.

“He’s a big man,” Garcia said. “I felt like … I don’t know … like a little branch or something on him. But it was nice to see, not only that, but how many (players) that have been really, really happy. Very touching.”

That tight hug given him by Stefani? All of golf has done that for Garcia. It’s amazing what a single Sunday in Augusta can do for a man. Garcia often has played golf’s dastardly villain, raising ire with his sometimes petulant and childish behavior, swinging his fists at the golf gods. Why, just four years ago, the Players’ Stadium Course was the setting for a combative Sergio vs. Tiger Woods feud, and you all remember whom the fans wanted to win that one. El Tigre. Not El Nino, who was left standing as alone as the island green.

But clearly a giant switch was flipped at the Masters, and Garcia was handed a new script. Though he went up against Justin Rose, a popular foe, first in regulation, then in a playoff, Garcia emerged as the man that seemingly everyone wanted to win.

Sergio Garcia celebrates after making a putt on the 18th green during the first playoff hole to win the 2017 Masters. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

In the stands, patrons loudly chanted his name, and the many peers who have come to know Garcia as a generally kind soul and hold respect for him for his many years of sustained excellence simply cheered to see a man who’d paid his dues finally get his payout.

Rory McIlroy watched the finish on the television in his rented home down the road from Augusta National and screamed for Garcia. When Garcia broke through, McIlroy cried.

He cried.

“Well, it was quite simple. He was extremely happy for me to have won the Masters,” Garcia said on Wednesday, asked about McIlroy’s emotions. “He was just … like I said before, so many unbelievable reactions from other players. They were like so pleased for me. It almost feels like that wanted me to win it more than I did.”

Garcia arrives to The Players competitively rusty. He and his fiancée, Angela Akins, a former collegiate golfer hung out in Switzerland “doing nothing” for a couple of weeks, but he has worked hard on his game in the days leading to Players to be as ready as he can be.

Garcia had to return to golf at some point, right?

“Well, it was either retire or keep going,” he said, smiling.

As a golfer, Garcia says he longs to improve each year over year. His progress at Augusta was shown more in his approach and attitude than anything he did with his clubs, and that’s saying something; from the 12th hole on, he really didn’t miss a shot. Even the drive that nearly ended his chances at the dogleg-13th was tugged only two yards, at most, and that’s how his ball caught a branch and crashed into the pine straw. Somehow, he scrambled to make par and stayed alive.

At Augusta, this was the rarity for Garcia: He wasn’t letting things such as bad bounces or the occasional lipped-out putt fester inside and frustrate him.

“I think the way I reacted to everything that was happening to me, I think that’s one of the most important things to me,” he said. “I need to make sure I keep on that same track. You know, when good things happen, accept them the way they are; when bad things happen, accept them and move on.”

Garcia has a terrific record at the Stadium Course. This is his 18th start here, and he has a victory (2008) to go along with five other top-10 finishes. Two years ago, he (along with Kevin Kisner) lost in a playoff to Rickie Fowler.

On Thursday afternoon, playing alongside Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar, Garcia will step to the first tee and be announced for the first time as the reigning Masters champion. It’s something that should be very emotional.

“It’s got to be an incredible feeling for Sergio,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, “I shot him a text as well as probably 250 other people, just saying ‘Welcome to the Masters Club,’ and proud to have a great champion in our locker room. He’s got to walk around with a smile on his face for the next couple years, just like, ‘I told you so.’

“You know,” adds Spieth, “for all the stuff that’s been shouted his way over the years, there’s a lot of haters that were put down with that win, and that’s not why we do what we do, but it’s kind of nice to have that, I’m sure, from his perspective.”

Haters? That no longer seems any part of the equation. Sergio Garcia’s story is now a tale of love, and good will, and blessed feelings for a man who waited so long to drink from the cup. Before he departed, there was one last question asked of him on Wednesday: So, who is the best player without a major?

“Not me,” he said.

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