AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia had long been his harshest critic, once saying he was not good enough to win a major, but on Sunday he buried decades of heartbreak and meltdowns by clinching a stirring win at the U.S. Masters.
The Spaniard stamped himself as one of the game’s greats in remarkable fashion by overcoming some final round, back-nine adversity to claim his maiden major title in a playoff with friend and European Ryder Cup team mate Justin Rose.
”It’s been such a long time coming,“ said Garcia, who missed a five-foot putt for the win at the end of regulation before rolling in a 12-foot birdie to claim victory on the first extra hole. ”I felt today the calmest I ever felt on a major Sunday.
“Even after making a couple bogeys I was still very positive and I still believed. I am so happy.”
Positive, happy and calm were not attributes one would normally have used to describe the 37-year-old Garcia on the golf course prior to this week.
Throughout his career, Garcia struggled to live up to lofty expectations laid upon his 19-year-old shoulders when he turned professional in 1999.
Considered by many to likely become the primary rival of Tiger Woods, Garcia developed a reputation for struggling in the biggest moments.
One of the most heartbreaking disappointments came in 2007 when his eight-foot par putt to win the British Open spun out of the cup and left him bent over in disbelief.
And while Garcia possessed the talent to put himself in the mix at golf’s premier events -- as his 22 top-10 finishes coming into this week attests -- his mental toughness was questioned.
After falling out of contention in the third round of the 2012 Masters, Garcia famously delivered a brutal self assessment in which he said did not have what it takes to win a major.
“I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said at the time. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place ... in any major.”
But the eve of this year’s first major, Garcia received an inspirational message from compatriot and boyhood idol Jose Maria Olazabal, a twice Masters winner, saying he believed in him, stay calm and do not get rattled like in the past.
Garcia clearly took those words to heart, most notably in the final round when on several occasions it looked like the wheels were about to fall off and another major title was about to slip through his grasp.
He stood at the sixth tee with a three-shot edge over Rose but three holes later was tied atop the leaderboard after the Englishman made three consecutive birdies.
After bogeys at 10 and 11, Garcia’s tee shot at the par-five 13th landed under an azalea bush and was unplayable, forcing him to take a drop and possibly end his title bid.
But Garcia scrambled for a tournament-saving par and then made birdie at 14 and eagle at the par-five 15th after nearly holing out from the fairway to set up an epic finish.
“I knew I needed to make that putt to stay in it,” Garcia said of his par-save at 13. “That putt really kind of got me even more confident and then I was able to make two great holes.”
When he missed his putt at 18 it was hard not to recall the missed putt in 2007 at Carnoustie, where Garcia ultimately lost in a playoff.
But not this year. Not for a revived Garcia who said he had come to terms with the fact that a major title might never come.
“Because of where my head was at, sometimes I did think about whether I am ever going to win one. I’ve had so many good chances and either I lost them or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me,” said Garcia.
”So it did cross my mind but lately I have been getting some good help and I’ve been thinking a little different, a little bit more positive and kind of accepting that if for whatever reason it didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on.
“But it’s happened,” Garcia added with a laugh.
Editing by Larry Fine