Tour Confidential: At last, Sergio Garcia’s major breakthrough

April 10, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. In what amounted to a duel that had all the elements of match play, Sergio Garcia won the 81st Masters by outlasting Justin Rose with a birdie on the first hole of sudden death. Rose led by two with five to play, but Garcia chased him down and it was a wild ride from there. What’s your biggest takeaway? And did Garcia win it? Or dare we suggest that Rose lost it?

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): I think the biggest takeaway for me was how Sergio didn’t let the mistakes and the loose shots get to him. He should have birdied the 8th, had a great look at 9 and after back-to-back bogeys on 10 and 11 it all looked lost. But Sergio hung in, made that insane par on 13 and from there it was great shot after great shot. Ten years ago Sergio Garcia isn’t winning this Masters. Heck, two years ago he isn’t winning this Masters. But Garcia is a happier and more content guy than he has ever been and his resolve was the difference.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): I’m with Shane. On the one hand, you could say that Rose failed to deliver the knockout punch when he had Sergio on the ropes. But the real take-away is the resolve Garcia showed. When his tee shot found the hazard on the 13th, who among us didn’t think he was done? I wonder whether Rose himself even suffered the slightest mental letup at that moment, thinking that Garcia was a goner.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, Garcia won it. He won it! He played himself into a hole and golfed his way out of it. He won it!

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): How about those iron shots into 15, 16 and 18. (Twice!) Sure his putting was spotty and you felt terrified every time he looked at a four-footer, but with Sergio it was never going to be easy. He was clutch when he needed it most. He absolutely won it.

MORE: Sergio finally breaks through  |  Scores

Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Garcia definitely won it. And my takeaway is that he transformed a somewhat disappointing, what-may-have-been career into a Hall-of-Fame career. By early in the back nine, this had pretty much become two-man match play, albeit with Thomas Pieters lurking. Sure, Rose had his chances to cement a perhaps insurmountable lead; I think especially of his missed birdie putt at 13, which would have given him a three-shot lead. Yet, the Masters isn’t the U.S. Open. There are plenty of opportunities to make up ground late, so there’s often an ebb and flow, as there was today. Both Rose and Garcia missed several makeable putts, but Sergio’s play at 15–drive, approach and eagle putt–brought him right back. And even as his putting failed him at 16 through 18, he approaches were superb. He won this thing with great tee-to-green play down the stretch.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Well, I haven’t seen any of it yet…but it sounds like maybe a touch of both with Sergio winning it leading by a nose. Making the amazing 5 on 13 then birdieing 14 and then an eagle on 15 is certainly not something he’s been able to summon when he’s found himself in those situations with a chance to win a major. Sure he missed a couple of makeable putts on 16 and 18 in regulation, but then so did Justin on 17 and 18. So, just the fact that he was able to overcome those putts and stay within himself was a huge step forward for him. I think he’d be the first to admit that sometimes in the past self pity has gotten in the way of him winning one of these earlier in his stellar career. Seems like this time he was able to battle that and show the resolve needed to finally check a major off the list.

2. Aside from Rose, who’s kicking himself most about an opportunity missed to win the Masters?

Bacon: I think you have to say Phil Mickelson. He’s 46 and you can’t think he will have a lot more shots at winning a fourth green jacket. He was three under at one point on Friday before three late bogeys, and after a birdie-birdie start on Saturday, he shot 74. Phil was there for a decent chunk of the week only to finish T22. I think Phil is leaving this place extremely disappointed.

Sens: Phil might be kicking himself, but if that’s the case, then Spieth should be in full-blown self-flagellation mode. He survived two disastrous holes in the first two days and scraped right back into contention to start the final round. Sure, as he said in his post-round interview, he gets to keep coming back for the next 50 years. But Sunday still got away from him in a big way.

Bamberger: Dustin Johnson. The way he’s been playing, shooting 10 under this week would have been almost easy.

Sens: True, Michael. I’d forgotten about DJ. Guess it, um, slipped my memory.

Ritter: All good picks, and you also have to look at Rickie Fowler. He was one back entering the day, and I thought he was playing well enough to make a serious run. Maybe it was the orange pants, which would’ve looked ridiculous with a green jacket. Either way, the “best player without a major” list is suddenly getting lonely for him.

Passov: It’s Spieth and Fowler for me. Now, perhaps I can overlook Fowler’s bogey-bogey-bogey finish, as he had to be dejected and perhaps desperate that he was out of contention to win, but it’s still incredibly disappointing to close with an ugly 76 after playing so well for so long. Spieth, of course, had the chance to bury the demons from 2016, even as they lingered after another quad in Round 1. A final-round 75, including yet another liquid disaster at 12, after the majority picked him to win after the third round means Spieth has to have the most regrets.

Wood: I’m going to let you guys in on a secret. Every single player and caddie who finished within, say, six shots of Sergio and Justin are sitting on their planes, in their cars as they drive to Hilton Head, in their rental homes, and in their hotel rooms reflecting on “that one three putt, that one bad swing, that one bad hop, and those two lip outs … take those out and I win this thing.” Every single one. For us, I look back at not making a single birdie on 8 or 15 all week, and still finishing only four back. That’s just one example, and I’m telling you every player and caddie who finished relatively close has their own stories and regrets. Every one is mulling over lost opportunities like that.

3. Garcia said on Saturday night that the seven-foot par putt he made at the 18th to close the third round wasn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it got him in the final twosome with his friend Rose versus drawing Jordan Spieth, an Augusta favorite. How important was that in settling Sergio’s nerves?

Bacon: I think being comfortable on the golf course is something Garcia has always battled, so yes, it was extremely important. The putter tap from Rose as they walked off the 15th green, the backwards high-five on the way to 16 green; these two were going at each other, but they were doing it with all the respect you’d expect to see.

Bamberger: About that, he’s fooling himself (not typical of him). Just check out his reaction to making it.

Sens: Agreed, Shane. At times, it got so amicable out there, it was starting to remind me of those hyper-polite chipmunks from the old Bugs Bunny shows. “After you, sir.” “No, sir. I insist. After you.” It was a relief to see some fiery fistpumps from each of them down the stretch. There’s only so much politeness one event can stand.

Ritter: Sergio loves being loved. Of the majors, he’s always played his best at the British, where he feeds off the crowd’s energy. But Sunday in Augusta he was paired with a buddy and the fans were embracing him. It wasn’t the whole story, but I think those factors helped.

Passov: I’m with the majority here. I think that the putt to give him the Justin Rose pairing was huge. He’s usually suffered early and often with rabbit-ears and nerves every time he was in the hunt in the final round of a major. Having a pal like Rose along to counter whatever jitters were to emerge was a big factor in getting the win.

Wood: I think MB hit the nail on the head with his comment. It’s always huge being in the last group. And I suspect it was equally important for Sergio to be paired with Rose rather than Spieth. Being comfortable in a group is a very underrated aspect of playing tournament golf. Week in, week out I can tell you it’s always a topic of conversation on the driving ranges and dinner tables most Tuesday nights on Tour — especially at major championships. It probably shouldn’t make a difference; you’re playing the same golf course regardless, and you’re not playing against one person, you’re playing against the field, but it matters. I’m not sure who originally coined the term (I believe it was Joe LaCava, but I’m not 100%), but it’s something that we caddies use all the time when we get what we consider is an unfavorable, uncomfortable pairing, or just one in which we know our player doesn’t like one of the other players. It goes something like this: “Hey Joe, who’d you guys get this week?” Joe: “Oh man … we got a typo … we got (blank) and (blank).” So I’m sure all four of the final two groups were happy with their pairings, but it was Sergio who did the most with it.

4. Having to come from behind after 54 holes for the first time in four appearances at the National, Spieth didn’t have it on Sunday, falling from a tie for fourth into 11th place after shooting 75. Was it because he burned so much energy getting back into the tournament after making a quad at the 15th on Thursday? Or was he just pressing as he tried to chase down the leaders? And what should we make of another ball in the water at the 12th?

Bacon: I’m not making much of Spieth’s week to be honest. He didn’t play his best, which was bound to eventually happen, and the fight he showed to get himself back in this tournament was impressive enough even if the tank was empty come Sunday afternoon. That bogey at the first really derailed his chances. It’s a hole that Spieth normally plays intelligently, but a sloppy pitch and a bad putt got him off to a rough start, and he never recovered. People don’t finish in the top two their entire careers at Augusta National. As Spieth said on Saturday, if he doesn’t win, who cares where he finishes?

Bamberger: As he said, he’s coming back for the next 50 years. He’ll have more chances between now and 2030.

Sens: By his own assessment–and Spieth seems nothing if not honest with himself–he was just a fraction off with his approach shots all day. And a fraction off is all you need at Augusta for a round to go badly awry. He might lose a couple of nights sleep over it. But none of us should.

Ritter: I agree with Shane that the opening bogey took the fizz right out of him. By the time he got to 12, he was vaporized. The rinsed tee shot was inconsequential, but the next time he’s in contention through three rounds, it’s something he’ll no doubt be asked about. Not a huge deal, but for his sake you would’ve prefered he fully turn the page by making a safe par there today.

Passov: I’m always amused by Spieth’s perspectives, whether he’s being refreshingly candid or whether he’s rationalizing in world-class fashion. He’s right about this–Nobody wins them all, or finishes T2 every time, and yes, he’ll be returning for decades to come. Still I’d like to see a little more genuine disgust and disappointment from him–more killer instinct. He clearly has the game to win the Masters every time. This could have, and maybe should have, been one of those times. And if he wants to make a statement, that he, and not DJ or Rory or Jason Day should be No. 1, this could have been a prime occasion.

Wood: Tough for me to comment not having seen any of it, or spoken with Michael or Jordan. But I do love the fact that he said if he doesn’t win, who cares where he finishes? Professional golf could do well with more of that sentiment. That along with the “What would Arnie do?” question to Michael from the pine straw on 13 Saturday afternoon was just awesome. As far as another water ball on 12? Irrelevant.

5. Thomas Pieters of Belgium was low rookie, sharing the lead at the halfway point and closing with a five-under 67 to claim a T4. Jon Rahm of Spain also popped up on the leaderboard before fading on the weekend to a 27th-place finish. Whose game is better suited to contend regularly and perhaps win at Augusta National?

Bacon: I think you have to go with Rahm just from what we’ve seen this year. It’s extremely early to predict if either will win at Augusta National (I’m sure we would have thought back in 1999 that Sergio would be rocking green years before 2017), but Rahm has few weaknesses in his game at this point and, if that continues, will always be a factor when the putts drop.

Bamberger: What Rahm has done in a short, short professional career is stunning, but he looks to me like Johnny Vegas, a big, strong basher with one speed. I think Pieters is better now.

Sens: It’s so early and so much can happen, mentally and physically. My guess is if they played a dozen rounds at Augusta head to head, they’d split them pretty evenly.

Ritter: They both look like future champions, and possibly soon. I’ll take Rahm just because of what he’s doing on Tour this year.

Passov: I’m in the Rahm camp. I certainly thought he’d be low Spaniard this week. He’s going to be a superstar. However, I watched him pretty closely on the back nine on Saturday, when he let his emotions get the best of him. By round’s end, he was tired and frustrated. You could see it in his walk, in his swing and in his reactions. This was a problem area in college, at Arizona State. In time, with seasoning and success, he’ll mature. He will win at Augusta. What would help until then is handling the little things that don’t go right a bit better than he does now.

Wood: I have no earthly idea. I do find it fascinating when it’s said that “Oh, such and such, he’ll definitely win at Augusta.” I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion ANYONE will win at Augusta, or any major for that matter. Let’s say you play the Masters 20 times in your prime (20-40 years old). OK, out of those 20, you may show up with your A/A- game six times, maybe 10? (Unless you’re Tiger in your prime, you’re gonna need your A game to win.) So that’s six to 10 real chances at putting on the green jacket on some future Sunday afternoon. But there’s a real good chance in the next 20 years that Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Sergio, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, etc., or some 15-year-old none of us has heard of yet will bring their A game that week as well. Do you get the bounces? Did you get the right draw? Is your A game better than someone else’s A game that week? I’m positive at the early stages of their careers at Augusta, it was probably said “Oh, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, certainly they’ll win the Masters at some point.” I just think it’s impossible to say something like that. The talent pool is too deep, and tournament golf is the living, breathing example of chaos theory every single week.

6. What will you remember most about the week?

Bacon: Sergio never giving up. It was a different look for him, and a welcomed one. Great players sometimes go through their careers without winning a major (Colin Montgomerie comes to mind here). I think a lot of us believed it might happen to Garcia, especially if he had lost this one, so seeing him fight and fight and fight some more was a treat to watch.

Bamberger: The relief in Sergio’s smile.

Ritter: I’ll remember how I felt watching Rose and Sergio on those closing holes. It was different from watching Phil and Stenson in the final group last year at Troon, which turned into a game of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better as they shot 63 and 65 while playing flawless golf. Rose and Garcia’s game was more like survival. They traded shots that ranged from sensational to shaky. At various times I felt sick for both guys. It was intense. It was riveting. It was awesome.

Passov: I was impressed with how well many of the game’s greats held it together on the first two cold, wild and windy days, and for losing the pre-tournament favorite on the eve of the championship. Most of all, I’ll remember this tournament with a big grin, as the major breakthrough for a guy for whom I was openly rooting. He’s had his maturity issues over the years, and an annoying habit of blaming everything and everyone but himself for his failures. But for his shotmaking genius, superb driving, and honest emotion, especially at Ryder Cup time, he’s been a player I wanted to see succeed, and (finally) get that major. He’s been so good, for so long–this just feels great.

Sens: I don’t know how you guys could leave out those few exhilarating moments when the golf tournament devolved into gardening and CBS devoted a stretch of prized airtime to showing a greenskeeper repairing a damaged cup on the fifth hole.

Wood: For me, on a personal note, it was watching Kooch make the hole-in-one on 16. We were playing with Rory, we were late enough in the day where it was as packed as it was going to be, and honestly, we still had an outside shot at the tournament. Matt hit the perfect 7-iron, and you knew it was perfect as soon as he hit it, so you both say “be good” and hope it crawls up the slope a little and makes it’s way back toward the hole. Then you hear the crowd start to murmur, because you can’t see the ball anymore as it’s behind the bunker. Then you see the crowd behind the green start to stand up. Then you see a few of the patrons on the right line put their arms in the air in anticipation, and you’re just hoping, thinking, “Go CRAZY! Don’t groan, don’t groan, don’t groan!” And then when they do go CRAZY its just pure fun, pure elation. So that’s what I’ll remember.

7. Garcia, 37, appears reenergized and happier than ever off the course, so we have to ask (again): Will he win a second major?

Bacon: It took him 37 years to get the first one so sure, I like him at the 2054 Open Championship! Honestly, who knows … I’m sure Garcia will be in contention five to 10 more times in majors, and if the putts drop, or his opponent hits a tree in the playoff hole, he could prevail.

Bamberger: I don’t know and he doesn’t care.

Ritter: He may still bag a British, but Michael is right: it doesn’t matter. The gorilla is finally off his back.

Sens: It will certainly be easier to get the second than the first. But that’s not saying much. So much needs to fall into place to win a major. Garcia will be in the mix again, most likely in an Open Championship, but who could possibly predict whether everything will go his way again? Not me.

Passov: Why shouldn’t he win another major? His driving and shotmaking get him in contention a lot–22 top 10s in majors before this week. Maybe he’ll find that the putts that used to miss will now go in. There’s a lot of competition out there, however, and a lot of superb players who only could haul in one major. Sure, he could–but with only four of them each year, the odds are against him.

Wood: See answer to question Re: Rahm vs Pieter above.