Sergio Garcia’s Masters victory is by far the European highlight of 2017 for one simple reason: Most of us – even the man himself – had given up hope of Garcia ever joining the major club.
Nine Europeans now have won majors since the turn of this century. Padraig Harrington kicked things off with three wins in 13 months. Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson all followed. Some wins were obviously more popular than others. McIlroy’s 2014 British Open victory at Royal Liverpool touched the heart strings. Clarke’s 2011 British Open title at age 42 was one for the ages. Stenson becoming the first Swedish male major winner was a great story.
Yet something about Garcia finally coming of age at 37 held European fans spellbound.
“It was gripping stuff because he seemed to have blown it, and we all thought ‘Well, that’s what Sergio does: He gets close but always comes up short,’ ” said former European Ryder Cup player Ken Brown, now a BBC TV commentator. “Then he makes that miraculous par on 13 and goes on to win. It was fairy tale stuff.”
Brown wasn’t alone with his initial thought. When Garcia’s ball found that little tributary to Rae’s Creek left of Augusta’s 13th fairway, many assumed Rose would be fitted for one of those coveted green jackets.
‘Rubbish to think Sergio wouldn’t win a major’
Garcia was pegged early as a future major winner when he ran up Medinah’s 16th fairway in pursuit of Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship. He lost by a stroke, but few doubted he’d push Woods over the next 10 to 15 years. Instead, he joined Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood in a select European club: great players who somehow couldn’t get the job done in the tournaments that really matter.
It was not a theory with which Ryder Cup teammate Ian Poulter agreed.
“It was rubbish to think Sergio wouldn’t win a major,” Poulter said. “Here’s a guy who’s been at the top of the game since he turned pro, and people were writing him off even though guys like Darren and (Mark) O’Meara proved 40-year-olds can do it.”
Even Garcia had signed up for the role of best European player not to win a major. Remember when he publicly announced he didn’t have what it takes to win one of the blue-chip events?
“I’m not good enough. … I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia told Spanish reporters at the 2012 Masters. “In 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
When asked he if meant the Masters, Garcia replied: “In any major.”
If there was a distant rumbling of thunder, it was the sound of Seve Ballesteros turning in his grave. Many couldn’t believe Garcia’s negativity.
“The frustrating thing was he was a fantastic ballstriker with a great short game that had one big flaw,” said Mark Roe, former European Tour player turned short-game specialist. “Only his putting was holding him back. That change to the claw grip was the missing link. And if he can hole putts on those greens to win the Masters, then he should now have the confidence to contend in more majors.”
All was forgiven after the green jacket.
Garcia’s 2012 woe-is-me moment was all too familiar. Acts of petulance are rare in professional golf, but Garcia has bucked that trend often. He was less than gracious in 2007 when he lost a playoff to Harrington in the British Open at Carnoustie. Garcia’s ball hit the 16th flagstick and, instead of dropping close to the hole, ended up 20 feet away. Garcia’s response didn’t surprise anyone.
“That stuff always happens to me,” he moaned at a time when he should have been congratulating Harrington.
There were many other times Garcia was less than gracious: a shoe-throwing tantrum during his rookie year in the World Match Play at Wentworth; spitting into the cup on the 13th hole at Doral in 2007; arguing with officials; storming off courses; giving the finger to unruly fans at the 2002 U.S. Open. The charge sheet is endless.
And he could turn on reporters faster than it takes to post 140 characters. I know, I’ve been on the receiving end.
Somehow the petulance, the tantrums, added to Garcia’s appeal. Athletes with edge fascinate us, and Garcia has plenty of edge. So it was almost as if European fans collectively said, “All is forgiven, Sergio” once he pulled on the green jacket.
(Note: This story is one in a series reviewing the year in golf. It appears in the November 2017 issue of Golfweek.)