When young Spanish amateur Sergio Garcia burst into golfing consciousness at the 1999 Masters, there were few, if any, who denied that he would someday be a major champion. What is not therefore surprising is that Garcia, consistently one of the best ball strikers in world golf, prevailed at the opening major of the year, but that, after 73 attempts, it was his first victory in golf’s big four tournaments.
Before the first 300 yard bomb left the first tee, however, the talk was all about who was not there. Tiger Woods, who’s domination in the early 2000s is often cited for Garcia’s lack of major silverware, announced somewhat unsurprisingly that he would not be competing, claiming that he would not be “tournament ready” following another back injury that has kept him side-lined since February. A back injury also claimed the pre-tournament favourite, Dustin Johnson, who was driving down Magnolia Lane off the back of three back-to-back wins, including two WGC titles. A slip on the stairs at home on the eve of the first day left him in such discomfort that he was forced to withdraw just minutes before his tee time.
The other notable absence was that of Arnold Palmer, the King, who sadly passed away in September. Mr Palmer, as all tour players call him, won four times around Augusta’s verdant pines, and this was the first year for decades where he wasn’t there to either play or take part in the traditional opening tee shot ceremony on Thursday. In that ceremony this year, Palmer was on everyone’s minds. His green jacket was draped over a chair on the tee box, and great friends Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus honoured his memory, with Player wiping away tears while Nicklaus saluted the sky with his hat before hitting his ball. While he wasn’t there in person, Palmer was and will always be present at Augusta, whether it’s in the minds and hearts of the players and fans, or in the breeze which cools them while drying those famous greens to their fiery best, he will always be there.
Thursday dawned cold and windy, remnants of the storms which had washed out the traditional par three contest the previous day. Almost all the field struggled on a day where the course played almost three shots over par on average. Thomas Pieters stormed into an early lead, entering Amen corner at five-under before giving it all back to the course on the back nine. Jordan Speith, who fell foul of the treacherous 12th hole in the final round of last year’s tournament to lose what seemed a certain victory, carded a nine on the par five 15th in what was an otherwise unremarkable 75. The lead at close of play went to American Charlie Hoffman, who birdied four of his final five holes to card a seven-under 65, which left him in an astounding four shot lead. Close behind him were William McGirt Lee Westwood, three and two-under respectively.
Friday’s round was played in similarly difficult conditions, and Hoffman could not replicate his heroics from the previous evening. A three-over 75 left him in a four-way tie for the lead with Ricky Fowler, who eagled the 2nd from a bunker on the way to a 67, along with Pieters, who shot 68, and Sergio Garcia, who’s 69 was almost much worse after a scoring error on the par four 10th nearly left him with a triple bogey seven instead of a bogey five. The halfway cut fell at six-over par, a mark which saw reigning champion Danny Willett as well as Open champion Henrik Stenson fail to make the weekend. Making the cut, however, was Rory McIlroy, who, at one-over, had persevered admirably without his best form to remain on the edge of contention.
Mercifully for the players, Saturday dawned calm and sunny. Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose was the big mover on moving day, tearing up the back nine to card a 67 to share the lead with Ryder Cup teammate Garcia at six-under. Speith also made a charge, shooting 68 to move him just two off the lead at day’s end, and Fowler maintained his good form to finish just one back. McIlroy, who shot 71, slipped back to seven shots off the lead, and said after his round that he would need “his best score around [Augusta], a 65, to have a chance”. Also just off the pace was Westwood, the only man to have started more majors without victory than Garcia, at one-under.
There have been many great final round duels in major championships. Think Nicklaus vs Watson at the 1977 Open championship, known as the Duel in the Sun, or Mickelson vs Stenson in the same tournament last year. There have also been magical triumphs on the final day at Augusta. Think Nicklaus again in 1986 at an age of 46, still the record for the oldest major victor, or Tiger Woods in 2005 holing that chip on 16. What happened in the final round of this year’s championship will forever occupy a spot on both lists.
It didn’t have to be a two-horse race. The final paring entered the day with only a one-shot lead over second place, but neither Fowler nor Speith had their A-game. They would go on to shoot 76 and 75 respectively. Their nearest challengers on the day were 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel, who shot 68, and Matt Kuchar, who recorded a memorable ace on 16, giving the ball responsible to an overjoyed young fan in the gallery, on his way to a 67. The day, however, was all about Rose vs Garcia.
Garcia took the early advantage, birdieing two of the first three holes, while Rose bogeyed the par four 5th to stand on the par three 6th hole trailing by 3. The bogey appeared to fire up Rose, who the proceeded to birdie the next three holes to draw level at the turn. Both Rose, who won the 2013 US Open-his only major victory to date, and Garcia appeared calm in the face of the immense task ahead, with throngs of easily excitable onlookers, or patrons as they are known at Augusta National.
It’s a very tired cliché that the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday, but it is the case far too often to be ignored. Of course, it was again so. Both Rose and Garcia blocked their drives right on 10, but only Rose could recover for par. Garcia followed with another bogey at 11, his drive hooking left this time behind a tree on what is one of the hardest par fours in the world. Both gladiators passed the test of 12, and Rose led by 2 standing on the 13th tee, the final leg of Amen corner. That famous stretch almost lived up to its name for Garcia, whose drive once again missed left, leaving him an unplayable lie. Miraculously, however, he made par, and Rose failed to make birdie. The momentum was shifting.
Garcia was dialled in on 14, using the slopes of the undulating green to leave himself a simple birdie opportunity, which he duly converted. On the 15th, where fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who would have been 60 that day, found water when chasing Jack Nicklaus in 1986, Garcia hit what he said after the round was “the best 8 iron he ever hit”. It struck the pin, and finished all of 15 feet away for eagle. Rose birdied, but his lead was gone when Garcia drained the eagle putt, his first in over 450 holes at Augusta. The duellers were level once more.
Now it was Rose’s turn to seize the moment, he birdied 16, but failed to get up and down out of the front bunker on 17 giving it straight back. So, to the 18th tee, where both Rose and Garcia striped their drives, and both found the green. Rose putted first, and just missed on the high side, leaving Garcia a putt for his first major. The pressure seemed to finally get to him however, and he missed after hitting what was probably his worst putt of the tournament. 72 holes would not be enough; a playoff was required.
Rose’s tee ball from the 18th tee was, this time, wayward, and he found himself stymied in the right-side trees. His route to the green blocked, he was forced to hack out to 150 yards from the green, praying that he could get up and down from there. Garcia, however, was once again in the middle of the fairway, and proceeded to put his 2nd shot to 8 feet for birdie. Rose found the green, but missed from 15 feet to give Garcia two putts for his first Green Jacket.
He needed only cosy his ball up to the hole, but his birdie putt tracked towards the hole. As thousands of patrons watched from the galleries, and Arnie and Seve watched from above, the ball just caught the left lip. And dropped. He had done it; Sergio Garcia was finally a major champion. Ever the sportsman, he took the time to shake hands with great friend and rival Rose before releasing a guttural roar into the Georgia evening. The crowd chanted his name as he embraced his fiancée on the famous old 18th green. Just a couple of years ago, he had given up on winning the Masters, saying “I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have.” He was wrong.