After numerous heart-breaking near-misses, Sergio Garcia finally claimed his maiden major title when he beat Justin Rose on the first playoff hole at the 2017 Masters. Hailed from an early age as the successor to Seve Ballesteros, Garcia claimed his first major title at the age of 37, at his 74th attempt and on what would have been his hero's 60th birthday.
Ballesteros died six years ago, having conquered five major titles with his swashbuckling style, inspiring a generation of Spanish golfers – including the only other winner from the Iberian peninsula Jose Maria Olazabal – and winning the affection of sports fans around the world. When Garcia burst onto the scene at the age of just 19 and came within a whisker of winning the PGA Championship in his first season as a professional in 1999, he was tipped for greatness.
Few who saw it could ever forget the verve and vitality that he brought in that enthralling encounter with Tiger Woods, typified by an audacious, eyes-closed swing when his ball lay close to a tree on the 16th hole followed by a sprint and scissor-kick leap in an effort to see how his shot fared. Garcia eventually finished second –but a mass of major titles surely beckoned.
Garcia continued to enthral and staked a permanent foothold in golf's elite, regularly challenging for the big tournaments. Four times he finished second at major championships, but the big win eluded the smiling matador. In 2007, he reached a playoff at The Open in Carnoustie having led the tournament after each of the first three rounds, but he succumbed to Padraig Harrington as the "nearly-man" tag hung heavy around his neck.
His global popularity was in no small part due to his regular excellence in the Ryder Cup, featuring in all but one European team since 1999 and finishing on the winning side five times. The Ryder Cup consistently brought the best out of Garcia and inspired crowds and teammates alike. Yet the search for an elusive major crown continued.
Garcia even seemed to succumb to doubts about his abilities when he declared during the 2012 Masters: "I'm not good enough. I don't have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place."
Going into the final round at Augusta, Garcia was tied with Rose at six under-par and despite fluctuations in the lower echelons of the leaderboard the pair were still locked together at the turn. Garcia again seemed to have succumbed to the pressure as he bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes to hand his English rival a cushion. At the 13th his cavalier approach looked likely to be his undoing –but after saving par from the pine needles and seeing Rose fail to take advantage, Garcia took solace from keeping the deficit to two shots.
A birdie followed at 14 before an exquisite approach shot at the 15th hit the pin and the resulting eagle forced him back into contention at the top of the leaderboard. The momentum was with Garcia, but he missed the chance to win the title in regulation play after skewing his birdie chance at 18 to force a play-off.
The Spaniard's supporters feared the worst but in the playoff it was Rose who buckled, finding the trees on the first playoff hole and gifting Garcia a two-putt opportunity to claim the Green Jacket. Garcia made a mockery of the nerves he had shown in his final round, sinking the first of two putts to claim victory.
It was a popular victory, with the American crowd, watching Augusta's first ever all-European playoff in the Masters, vocally rooting for Garcia. American fans have long-since forgiven Garcia for one of the few missteps of his career; an ill-considered joke at Tiger Woods' expense after he collapsed in the final two holes of the 2013 Players Championship.
Having become engaged to Golf Channel reporter Angela Akins earlier this year, the future looks bright for Garcia. He has probably left it too late to become the sport's dominant force as had been predicted once upon a time. But he has avoiding the ignominy of being a member of the select group of golfers not to win major honours. The perennial bridesmaid of golf finally had his day in the sun.
You may be interested in:
- Sergio Garcia ends wait for first major with Masters triumph against Justin Rose
- How did Rory McIlroy and Team Europe respond to abuse from spectators at the Ryder Cup?
- Sergio Garcia delighted to join idols Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal as Masters champion
- How Sergio Garcia exorcised his major demons to win The Masters