El Niño grew up to be a Masters champion.
Sergio Garcia – golf’s once-brash, brilliant wunderkind – finally brushed aside the burden of a professional career waiting to be fulfilled when he won the 81st Masters Tournament Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club.
Garcia, the Spaniard christened “El Niño” – The Kid – early in his amateur career, combined his wealth of skill with a newly minted maturity and poise to survive plenty of adversity in the final round and win a playoff against close friend Justin Rose.
Garcia, needing two putts for par on the first extra hole, instead made the birdie putt.
“From the drive this morning to the course I was very calm,” Garcia said. “I felt the calmness I’ve never felt on a major Sunday. Even after making a couple of bogeys, I was still very positive. I still believed there were a lot of holes I could go after.
“I’m so happy. … It’s been such a long time coming.”
Garcia and Rose matched closing 69s for 9-under 279 totals, three clear of South African Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters winner, who shot 68 for 282.
"If there’s anyone to lose to, it’s Sergio. He deserves it. He’s had his share of heartbreak." - Justin Rose
Matt Kuchar’s 67 featured a hole-in-one at the 16th hole. He tied for fourth with Thomas Pieters of Belgium at 283. Pieters shot 68.
Garcia fought through adversity on the second nine in a way few imagined he could, given his history of emotional unravelings. He let a three-shot lead slip away on the first nine, was two strokes down after 12 holes and seemed destined for an even greater deficit after a terrible drive on the 13th hole. But he refused to spit the bit.
Garcia made a saving par at the 13th with a one-putt after taking a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie, then he made birdie at the 14th from 6 feet and an eagle at the 15th from 14 feet.
“It was Sergio’s run around the 13th that put him back in the Tournament,” Rose said. “Other than that, I had it won.”
Beginning with Garcia’s eagle at the 15th and continuing to the par-3 16th, the golf and the drama reached epic proportions. It was a classic Sunday second nine at Augusta.
Garcia hit his tee shot at the 16th to 6 feet. Rose stepped up and hit his to 8 feet. Rose made birdie and put the pressure on Garcia, who missed his putt. That sent Rose to the 17th tee with a one-shot lead. He drove into the right rough, hit his second shot into a bunker and failed to get it up-and-down.
With one hole left, they were even again at 9-under.
The first time around at the 18th, Rose hit his approach with an 8-iron to 7 feet. Garcia got it 2 feet inside him. They both missed the birdie attempts to set up the playoff. Rose drove into the right trees on the extra hole and paved Garcia’s road to victory.
“It was a wonderful battle with Sergio,” said Rose, now runner-up in the Masters twice in three years. “If there’s anyone to lose to, it’s Sergio. He deserves it. He’s had his share of heartbreak.
“I think this is a Tournament I’m going to win one day. It’s my favorite Tournament of the year. This is one I hope we can knock off.”
Asked to pick a highlight – a hole, a shot or something else – Garcia said the best part of the victory was his ability to “demonstrate my character and mentality, especially when things were not going well.”
Garcia was introduced to golf as a 3-year-old by his father, Victor, a golf professional. In 1995, he became the youngest player to win the European Amateur. He turned professional in 1999 after winning the Silver Cup as Low Amateur at the Masters with rounds of 72-75-75-73—295.
“When I came here in ’99 as an amateur, I felt like this course was probably going to give me one major,” Garcia said. “I’m not going to lie, that thought started changing a little bit.”
But once he learned a secret about Augusta, his mindset changed again.
“I learned to accept what Augusta gives – and takes,” he said.
Garcia achieved prominence for the first time when he finished second to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, leaping down the fairways at Medinah with the unbridled enthusiasm of a teenager. At that stage in his career, the consensus was there were no limits to what he could accomplish as heir-apparent to his legendary countryman Seve Ballesteros.
But Garcia found the game to be more difficult in the years to come, and his game suffered the consequences of immature behavior. With each near miss in majors, the mark of greatness in golf, Garcia’s shoulders slumped and his demeanor soured a little more.
Garcia, 37, arrived at Augusta National this year without a major victory in 73 attempts. He arrived as a man engaged to be married in July to Angela Akins, a former collegiate golfer. And he arrived a man ready to apply the lessons of life and of golf that he has learned.
After shooting 70 in Saturday’s third round to move into a tie for the lead alongside Rose at 6-under, Garcia said he was ready for “a very exciting Sunday.” It was a mature, confident declaration and free of any waggles, the nervous twitch that has affected him during his career.
On the eve of the Masters Tournament, Jose Maria Olazabal – the other half of the Spanish Armada made famous by his partnership with the late, great Ballesteros, a two-time Masters champion – sent Garcia a note. Olazabal, who competed this year, is a former two-time champion at Augusta National.
“Obviously, Seve couldn’t do it, but Jose sent me a beautiful message,” Garcia said. “(Jose Maria) has a good touch when it comes to those things. It really meant a lot.”
On the eve of the final round of the 1999 Masters Tournament, there was a message waiting for Olazabal when he arrived at the golf course. It was from Ballesteros and it said, simply, “You are the best player.” Olazabal went out and proved it by winning his second Green Jacket.
On Sunday, the day Ballesteros would have celebrated his 60th birthday, Sergio Garcia was the best player.