¡QUÉ GRANDE @THESERGIOGARCIA MUY EMOCIONANTE DESPUÉS DE TANTOS AÑOS LUCHANDO TANTO! ¡MUCHAS FELICIDADES! ¡QUÉ ALEGRÍA! … AND YOU DIDN’T NEED TO SPEAK TOO MUCH SPANISH TO GET THE GIST OF WHAT RAFAEL NADAL WAS SO EXCITED ABOUT LAST SUNDAY EVENING. INDEED, THE BACK END OF THE 2017 US MASTERS TURNED OUT TO BE ONE FOR THE AGES.
Sport’s couch potatoes – perforce – have had to adapt to survive in recent years; so much action, so little time to mark it all. Thus does one learn to abbreviate and thus does experience teach you that, for example, all you really need to see is the first two minutes of the University Boat Race and the last two fences of the Grand National, at which point you can go back to painting the spare bedroom. Boxing’s tricky, obviously, given you could tune in at the end of Round Five to find you’d missed the sucker punch in Round Three but golf’s a cinch, which is why – and you need to be ruthless about this – you should never check in to the US Masters any earlier than the back nine on Sunday.
Of course the traditionalists – and nowhere are they thicker on the ground than amid the pine needles of Augusta, Georgia – will tell you this is sacrilege. There’s the Par Three Competition, the Champions’ Dinner, the Honorary Starters, indeed, the first sixty-three holes of the most fabled landscape in golf. What are you thinking of? But foreplay has its limits and five and a half days is pushing it, especially when the aforementioned spare bedroom needs painting. Or, come to think of it, even when it doesn’t.
Besides by the time the leaders tee it up on Number Ten on Sunday evening, what’s gone before is already fish and chip wrappings; without all remedy and regard. Jordan Spieth made a quadruple bogey nine on the fifteenth on Thursday? So what? Whether he’s still in the conversation coming down the stretch or whether he’s not, it’s irrelevant. But conversely, of course, if Jordan Spieth makes a quadruple bogey seven on the twelfth on Sunday – as he did last year – then we’re talking priests and taxis; in other words, golf only becomes compulsive viewing when push begets shove and the game becomes less about the golfer’s ball and more about the golfer’s balls. And nowhere did we learn more about ‘cojones’ than on the back nine at Augusta National last Sunday.
Be honest, how many of you would have wagered an empty fag packet on Sergio Garcia winning the 2017 Masters as he stood amid the blushing azaleas scratching his salt and pepper scruff and contemplating his unplayable lie on the thirteenth hole? He’d just bogeyed ten and eleven, he was already two shots behind the resolute Justin Rose – whose own drive on thirteen was straight down the pipe – and more than ever he was looking like Destiny’s Orphan. Indeed, Brain Wacker, a journalist at ‘Golf Digest’, was already making a large deposit in his ‘Twitter’ account; ‘Movies I’ve seen 100x before,’ he chortled. ‘Shawshank Redemption, Twister, Mrs. Doubtfire and that tear-jerking horror flick ‘Sergio’.’ He got twenty-eight ‘likes’ in the blink of an eye.
It was a withering but understandable comment. Here was a man who’d played seventy-three majors and won none of them, who’d spent eighteen long years garnering a hard-earned reputation for being one of the worst closers in major championship golf, who in 2009 had said of Augusta National; ‘I don’t like it, to tell you the truth. I don’t think it’s fair … they can do whatever. It is not my problem. I just come here, play golf and go home’ and who in 2012 had stood on the very same clubhouse steps and said of himself; ‘I’m not good enough; I don’t have the thing I need to have. I need to play for second or third place.’ Was this brilliant but brittle man – seriously – about to prove us all wrong? More than that, was he – seriously – about to prove himself wrong? Well, blow me down, yes, he was.
Typically, though, he chose to tease it out a little. On the one hand there was the eight iron approach – the eight iron, for heaven’s sake – that he ripped into the par five fifteenth and which almost knocked the flag clean out of the hole and, on the other, the five-footer for birdie on sixteen which was – frankly – one of mine; a feeble, dribble of a stroke that petered out like a dud firework. This, though, has always been the hallmark of Garcia; give him a five-footer to seal the deal and it’s odds-on he’ll miss but give him a ten-footer to take the tournament and he’ll more than likely drain it. And amid the thickening shadows on the eighteenth – first in regulation and then in the play-off – so it was to prove.
You have to say Justin Rose did leave the door ajar when he could – and should – have slammed it shut. There were very makeable putts on 11, 12, 13, 17 and 18 – the last an absolute pearl-clutching miss that was no more than a millimetre on the high side – and he played the play-off hole like a fifteen-handicapper, all of which will sting. ‘I thought I had it wrapped up,’ said a stunned but ever-candid Rose back in the clubhouse afterwards. ‘You gotta play all the holes,’ said Butch Harmon in the Sky studio.
But for all that Garcia still had to make this his Masters and somehow, he found a way, perhaps inspired – as has been somewhat tritely repeated in the media – by sharing the moment with what would have been Seve Ballesteros’ sixtieth birthday. And, who knows, maybe that, together with Jose-Maria Olazabal’s touching pre-tournament text message, stiffened his Spanish resolve. No disrespect to either man but – personally – I’d credit the assist to Angela Akins and The Power of Love.
Angela, in case you missed her behind the eighteenth green, is his fiancée – the wedding’s set for the week after the Open – and, by all accounts, she’s a flinty, sporty, no-nonsense Texan; not only that but she’s the kind of woman who, as Raymond Chandler once put it, could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. Clearly, that’s a needless, frivolous and utterly inconsequential observation on my part but, then again, if you’re a journalist, you don’t get paid to ignore the bleeding obvious.
Rather more relevant – no question – have been the dynamics of her two-year relationship with Sergio, a subject Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington were eagerly dissecting up in the Sky Sports studio. ‘She’s been a big difference for him,’ said Harrington, ‘a big driving force. I saw it at the Ryder Cup.’ McGinley concurred. ‘That girl there’s got a bit of feistiness about her, a bit of heart’, he said. ‘She’s added an extra dimension, a big voice in his ear. She’s an important part of his success.’ Garcia himself this week conceded much the same, albeit indirectly. ‘People have believed in me, sometimes more than I did,’ he said, ‘and that mattered a great deal. I just felt a calmness I’d never felt before.’
Certainly the body language up at eighteen was fascinating. As Garcia marched – head down – to the scorer’s tent having just missed his first putt to win the Masters, Akins was in the human corridor, keeping her distance yet holding out her hand for a side-five. ‘You okay, you okay?’ she asked, almost bobbing down to get in his eye-line and reinforce the positive vibe. He nodded and walked on. And then during the – now traditional – smooch on the dance-floor when it was all over, there was not just the hug and the smacker of a kiss but the slap on his chest which – to me – said, louder than words; ‘see, didn’t I tell you you could do this? Didn’t I? Didn’t I?’ Look, all I’m saying here is that maybe Huey Lewis was right all along.
Certainly to win one of golf’s most momentous titles, Garcia had to find a way to junk some less momentous moments of his own. In 2013 one journalist Stateside published a stinker of a piece wittily entitled ‘Seventeen Reasons Why America Hates Sergio Garcia’; he once ‘middle-fingered the crowd’, he once ‘spat in the hole’, he ‘beats too many Americans at the Ryder Cup’. And no question he’s been seen by many down the years as a petulant whiner – ‘El Nino’ (The Kid) had supposedly become the ‘El Mocoso’ (The Snotty-Nosed Brat) – not forgetting, of course, the ugly feud with Tiger Woods: Woods hockeyed him at the Open at Hoylake in 2006 – Garcia inexplicably turned up on the Sunday in matching crushed canary trousers and shirt – and then texted a friend to say he’d ‘just bludgeoned Tweetie Pie’ whereupon six years later, Garcia’s ‘fried chicken‘ comments about Woods prompted a furore and a heartfelt apology. None of this was either edifying or endearing.
Garcia’s personal life has seemed equally lost. There were liaisons with – among others – Martina Hingis and Morgan-Leigh Norman, the daughter of Greg, none of which worked out and all of which added to the impression of a man struggling to feel comfortable in his own shoes. No question, he can be a thoughtful, an amiable and a hugely engaging presence but deep down, you sense the cork has been in far too tight. Indeed when ‘Golf Digest’ – anonymously – straw-polled the locker room ahead of this year’s Masters, the honesty on offer on the subject of Sergio spoke volumes:
‘The irony is that, ball-striking-wise, Sergio is suited to Augusta more than anyone other than Bubba Watson. But he’s talked himself out of winning there … he can’t get his head out of his arse. It’s a shame. He has everything, all the shots … but his attitude is awful at Augusta. He can’t escape his past there … he doesn’t handle adversity well…. I think he’s just fed up with trying and coming up short… some people turn up and relish the prospect; others dread it and Sergio is one of those.’
Well, somehow, last Sunday – with a little help from his friends and his fiancée – Sergio finally got his head out of his arse and trusted to his talent and therein lies the glorious message for us all, irrespective of whether or not we play golf. Or perhaps he just found a way to make all that pain and all those boiling emotions work for him instead of against him. ‘I maybe created some of that emotion so I’ll take some credit for that,’ said another nemesis, Padraig Harrington, as Garcia stalked the eighteenth green like a lunatic, screaming in unadulterated joy at the grass, the gallery, the trees and the big, blue sky. ‘I just hope he enjoys it.’
And, rest assured, he will: the trophy, the green jacket and the cheque for two million dollars, which should help pay for one heck of a wedding. In the Butler Cabin, a gleeful Danny Willett – introduced by Augusta’s Billy Payne as ‘last year’s Chairman’: we assume he meant ‘champion’ – held out the green cape for the Masters’ new matador and hugged him like a brother. For the record, Garcia’s caddy this year wore white overall number 89, the very one worn by Willett’s caddy the year before. The scramble for that jumpsuit next year looks set to be an absolute bun-fight.
10 APRIL 2017