Yesterday, I sat at the bar of an Irish pub in Washington, D.C., with a bourbon neat and my eyes fixated on the television. The bartender looked at me and said, “Nothing better than a Sunday afternoon and golf.”
I retorted, “Nothing better than a Sunday afternoon and The Masters.”
Much like the Olympics, where non-sports fans suddenly care about the outcome of an athlete’s performance, the Masters is the Olympics of golf, a tournament that captures the attention of people who typically ignore the game.
There is something about seeing the best in the world compete on what is arguably the most pristine of golf courses, in the hopes to be adorned with a prestigious green jacket afterward.
This Masters, though, was particularly special for a Spaniard who the golf world dubbed as the best player in the world to have never won a major. Sergio Garcia, at 37 years old, and after playing in 73 majors during his career, broke through yesterday in dramatic fashion.
I won’t bore you with the details and how he faltered midway through the round, creating anxiety for those pulling for him, me included.
García turned professional in 1999 after shooting the lowest amateur score in the 1999 Masters Tournament, and since then has won over 20 international tournaments.
His fame heightened, however, when he was just 19 years old, at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club. In the final round, he dueled against Tiger Woods, and hit one of the most famous shots in golf. On the 16th hole, Sergio’s ball found itself up against a tree trunk in the right rough, with the green hidden from his view. In a fearless attempt to win a major, Sergio stepped up to the ball, and hit a low fade that proceeded to run onto the green.
His reaction afterward is what capitulated him into the minds of the sport’s enthusiasts. He sprinted up the hill in an over-sized polo and slacks and jumped as high as his thin body would allow so he could see where the ball had finished.
It was his fire and spirit that people were drawn to, and what they wished they had and hoped to draw from.
I was ten years old when I first saw Sergio play in that PGA Championship, and I do not remember a time I felt more connected to a player. As a young golfer, I had that same fire, one that I did not know how to manage.
As it would later become apparent in Sergio’s golf career, he often let his emotions get the best of him. His strong emotional reactions were often attributed to his Spanish bloodline. The same attributions were made towards me, as I carried with me the last name of Alvarez. We both wanted to win so badly, the losses crippled us, and made us question the love for the game.
Perhaps the pressure of knowing what the world expected of him became a burden.
At the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Sergio had developed “grip yips” - standing over the ball for upwards of a minute, re-gripping the club over and over again, afraid to pull the trigger. Upon criticism of his grip-yips, he flipped off the critiques.
Soon, his nerves transcended into his putting, and soon took a toll on his confidence.
Perhaps the constant near-misses of finally clinching a major championship led him to believe that he was never destined to be a major champion.
In fact, in 2012 he said at the Masters, “In 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
That certainly wasn’t the attitude or fire that made the golf world love him.
Off the course, distractions took place, particularly his rivalry with Tiger Woods.
“I mean, you can't like everybody," Garcia said in an interview. "I think that there's people that you connect with and there's people that you don't. You know, it's pretty much as simple as that. I think that he doesn't need me in his life, I don't need him in mine, and let's move on and keep doing what we're doing.''
Despite trying to brush off his poor relationship with Tiger, Sergio had to quickly play damage control in 2013 after a racist and off-color remark at the European Tour function. When asked if Sergio would invite Tiger to dinner, he responded, “We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken,” a remark obviously made about Tiger Woods’ being African American.
Despite immediately apologizing, the backlash left a mark on his character.
His brashness and overall blasé faire attitude towards golf, the media, and people reared its head in his performance on the course.
Many doubted if he would ever win a major, particularly since he did not believe in himself. If having the world believe in you before was not enough to cause you to believe in yourself, then what could?
Then, last year, a new Sergio began to emerge: a calmer and happier one. After blowing another chance at a U.S. Open title at Oakmont Country Club, he told a group of journalists, “Obviously, there’s a lot of nerves, but I really enjoyed it. I think that I handled it quite well, and unfortunately, came up a little bit short. But I’m still happy with the week. I’ve just got to keep putting myself in this situation and, you know, at some point in time, I’m sure that, you know, the coin will end up, will fall off on heads instead of tails.”
This was the Sergio golf fans wanted to see, someone who knew what he was capable of if he could remain calm and in the present.
He credits much of his new happiness to the love he found with fiance Angela Akins, a former collegiate golfer and golf reporter. He is also older, and perhaps has more perspective on his game than before.
And despite many in the golf world writing him off, Sergio always had Spain rooting for him. Spanish golfer and Hall of Famer Jose Maria Olazabal, who has won two Masters, sent Sergio a letter earlier at the beginning of the week that read, “I’m not sharing my locker with anyone at the moment, but I hope to share it with you.”
Sergio was paired in the final group on Sunday, but the world did not look like it was resting on his shoulders. It was also noted that Spanish great Seve Ballesteros, who was once No. 1 in the world and also a two-time Masters winner, would have been 60 years old yesterday.
Sergio had always paid great homage to Ballesteros, particularly after Ballesteros lost his life to brain cancer in 2011.
Perhaps Sergio was able to pull through on Sunday because he was not just playing for himself.
After winning in a one-hole playoff against Justin Rose, the new Masters champion said, “...I’m sure he helped a little bit with some of those shots or some of those putts. This is amazing. To do it on his 60th birthday and to join him and Olazábal, my two idols in golf my whole life, it’s something amazing.”
On Sunday, we all saw Sergio’s Spanish passion and fire once again, but we also saw was someone who had grown into himself, not only as a golfer, but as a person.
What we saw was a true champion.