AUGUSTA, Ga. —Eight p.m. The day’s last light. Sergio Garcia, back on the practice green for the second time this day, but not for more putting work. This time, in a wooden high-back chair with a green cushion. The winner’s throne. Stewart Hagestad, accepting the silver cup as low amateur, with the grace that is supposed to typify the game, turned to Garcia, who is 37, and said, “You were my hero growing up.” The new winner—finally getting his first major championship—grinned like a man who knew that the rest of his life was now going to be a lot easier.
We’ve watched him grow up, or many of us have. In 1999, Garcia was the low amateur here. Another Spaniard, Jose Maria Olazabal, won the second of his two Masters titles. Olazabal followed Seve Ballesteros, another Spaniard, who won green jackets in 1980 and 1983. Those two men were Garcia’s heroes when he was growing up. It’s an extraordinary thing. The Masters has been played 81 times. Five times it has been won by a Spaniard, golfing artistas who play the game in a way that is absolutely mesmerizing.
Garcia, aided and abetted by the man with whom he dueled through the afternoon and early evening, Englishman Justin Rose, gave the game and the tournament a tremendous, needed lift on Sunday. Too many important events have been marred by rules controversies in the past year. The Tiger Woods injury saga is long and incredibly boring. The endless effort to turn this great, confounding, complicated game into a paint-by-numbers exercise has threatened to turn it into a science it has never truly been and was never meant to be. Yes, Garcia knows his launch angle and he certainly knows precisely how far he hits every club. But in good times and in his many bad ones, he plays with heart and he tells the truth afterward.
In the early afternoon, it looked like any of seven golfers might win, but in the end, the two European Ryder Cup stars, so expert at match play, turned this 72-hole stroke-play competition into one of the most memorable mano-a-mano events in recent years. Garcia won on the first playoff hole with a birdie to Rose’s bogey, set-up by an uncharacteristic errant tee shot, a push job that essentially ended his chances.
Garcia’s four-round total of nine under par was built on rounds of 71, 69, 70 and 69. He and Rose (71-72-67-69) got into the last twosome on Sunday in different ways. They are both shotmakers, as opposed to putters. But you can’t get to their level without having a lot of both, coupled with great driving. Their paths to their Sunday 69s were a study in the varied ways this game can be played. Rose is the ultimate technocrat. If golf had a Seve today, Garcia is as close to that person as anyone. On the putting green—the second time—he thanked the Augusta National Golf Club for what it does “to grow the beautiful game of golf.” By the way, he expresses himself in flawless and precise English, without a day at an American university.
The scene was quite different five hours earlier. At 3 p.m., under bright sunshine and through a hint of a breeze, the day’s ultimate stars were on the 2nd hole. The curtain on the final act of this three-act play, The 81st Masters, was up. Some of us, many of us, wait all year for it.
All theater needs a stage—you know this one well—and a setup. Act I, Windfest, played out over the course of a chilly, blowy Thursday and Friday. In Act II, The Europeans, Garcia and Rose got themselves thinking about the green coat.
The beauty of Sunday afternoon at Augusta National is that it cuts right through the numbing litany of numbers that modern golf churns out, courtesy of TrackMan, Golf Channel and the FedEx Cup playoffs. The truth is what it’s always been in golf. There’s no one way to do it, and with a major on the line, your body won’t necessarily do what you want it to do.
But golf is a game of numbers. Who would win is another way of asking what would win. The answer to that is anybody in position to get to nine under, almost for sure.
First a preamble: Sunday at Augusta was pure theater—as pure as it gets. But by quarter-after-six, it was obvious that the winner would come of the last twosome. One (Sergio) needed it more than the other. He’s an old 37. He’s done everything you could do in the game, with one notable exception. He’s won all over the world. He’s led a glamorous life. He’s been on winning Ryder Cup teams. But he plays in an era where majors have been venerated as never before, and his resume—his golfing life—was incomplete.
Rose is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s 36, and he was, like his Sunday playing partner, a teenage wunderkind. We’ve watched Rose grow up too, though not as intensely as we have watched Garcia. (For one thing, it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to a player who plays such technically exemplary golf.) Rose was playing with house money on Sunday, with his Olympic gold medal from last summer in Rio and his 2013 U.S. Open victory at Merion. The stakes were high for him, of course. Huge. But not life-changing.
Sergio plays the game the way his golf-pro father, Victor, taught him. Very handsy. Tremendous lag on the downswing. A swing that screams athleticism. A joy to watch. Perfect English in a charming accent. Public bouts of self-doubt, cockiness, surliness. But always, somehow—save for an incident here and there—likable.
Each man used 34 strokes on the front nine, two under par. The 50-yard walk to the 10th tee, through a funnel of a thousand clapping spectators, can rev a player up or leave him hyperventilating. You couldn’t see anything on Rose’s face. Garcia looked … hungry. They both hit shaky drives. Rose gutted out a par, Garcia made a smart bogey off the pine needles after fanning his second shot. Rose had a one-shot lead. It wasn’t match play yet, but it was heading there.
After a Garcia bogey to Rose’s par on 11, giving the Englishman a two-shot lead, it seemed like the match was over before it got started. Rose would play nothing but smart, well-executed shots from 12 tee to the house, and that would be that, right?
They both made 3s on the finicky 12th, and the tournament was over when Garcia, who used to hit the most beautiful high, long drawing drives you could dream about, hit a hard cut off the 13th tee. Why, Sergio, why? Well, it’s the shot he had been playing all week. You know these artists. They’re going to do what they’re doing to do.
The par he made there was not just all-world, it was all-Seve, and Garcia made that 5 on what would have been Ballesteros’s 60th birthday. Rose made par there too. (If that hole ever gets lengthened it would be a crime against golf architecture. It’s the best par-4.6 in the world, and that’s all it needs to be or should be. What we saw is why it is the way it is. Not everything needs to be “improved.”)
Sometimes a par feels like a birdie, and the one Garcia made on 13 had to feel that way, and it had to have something to do with the birdie he made on 14, which got him within a shot of Rose.
The great par-5 15th has been played in seven collective shots by a Sunday twosome before, but it’s been years since it was played with this much on the line. Garcia’s eagle there, to Rose’s birdie, will be part of Masters lore forever. The shadows were long, the pond was still, the grass was growing almost before your eyes. Garcia never makes it look easy with the putter, and his eagle attempt looked like it was going to stop one rotation short of the hole, but it fell. Garcia’s fist pump and the accompanying roar is why the Masters is the Masters, golf’s most intimate event. Now the ball game was tied.
This was not the script. Rose, really, had done nothing wrong. But nothing wrong is the recipe for winning the U.S. Open. It was never meant to be the way to win the Masters.
On to 16. Two near-stiffed shots. No air to breathe. Rose, putting first (an advantage in these match-play situations) made. Garcia, trying to become the first player to win a major using the claw putting grip, did not. Rose by a shot—given away about 12 minutes later when he made a bogey out of the bunker at 17 to Garcia’s par.
All together now: instant classic.
The 72nd hole of the tournament—two spectacular approach shots taking very different routes to the hole. Rose, putting first again. It should have been an advantage. He missed from seven feet. Garcia missed from five after misreading his putt.
Rose took his tinted glasses off for the early-evening playoff, starting at 7:13 p.m. on the 18th tee. Garcia looked worn out, gray, exhausted. They trudged up the hill, Rose in his black pants, Garcia in his white. The difference was that Garcia had nutted his drive. Rose had played pinball with the loblollies on the pines. He thinned his punch shot and ended up tapping in for bogey.
And then came Sergio, coolly rolling in the birdie putt he did not need. He hugged his friend and playing partner. He kissed his caddie. He blew kisses to the fans. He gurgled, “C’monnnnnnn. Yeah!”
He’ll wear the green well for the rest of his life. Seve would be proud.
Much earlier—back to 3 p.m. again—there were seven Sunday protagonists. (Things change fast at Augusta!) There was Jordan Spieth. More muscular and less boyish than he was when he won two years ago, at age 21. Looking to bury the 9 he made on Thursday on 15. He was three under.
There was Adam Scott, also at three under. Charley Hoffman, Rickie Fowler and Ryan Moore were all five under. Could one of these chasers shoot a back-nine 30, as Jack Nicklaus did when he won in 1986? Or 31, as Phil Mickelson did when he won in 2004? Or 32, as Charl Schwartzel did in 2011, when he won with birdies at the last four holes? They all dropped out through golf’s natural attrition process.
Matt Kuchar added to the day’s fun with an ace on the 16th hole that was not only a perfect 7-iron, it was a perfect read of the green from the tee. Can you say Kucharging?! Well, it was a passing thought. But Kuchar’s 1 only got him to five under, and the harsh fact is that five under with two holes left had no chance.
Which brings us back to the artist and the technician. Live theater. This is why we love sports. This is why we love the game. Now we know how it ended, and it was great. While it was unfolding? Greater yet. We think we know everything these days, but we don’t. We don’t know how it will end. It was true on Election Day. It was true at the Super Bowl. It was true on Masters Sunday. It makes you feel alive just watching it. Imagine what it was like to be in it?
Garcia’s road to this moment was so long. Remember the full-swing yips he had at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage? And the half-nutty comments he made after failing to win this major and that one? The total indifference he showed to his gifts for stretches of his career? Don’t dismiss any of those things. They all helped him get to where he is now.
Speaking of his career in theatrical terms, Garcia said, “I never felt like it was a horror movie. “
There was just a hint of a beat before he added, “A drama, maybe.”
Night fell on Augusta.