Always a delicate flower, Sergio Garcìa finds that Augusta brings him out in a state of existential angst. “I don’t know if I will ever win a major,” he said, after one especially enervating round here in 2013, describing the course as “not my favourite place”. Well, the psychiatrists would have had a field day with this latest performance. No sooner had the Spaniard briefly reached the summit of a churning Masters leaderboard than he succumbed to another dizzy spell.
Garcìa attracts these dramatic mini-episodes like moths to a lantern. For an hour his tournament seemed sabotaged by a triple-bogey seven at the 10th, after a drive so wayward that he had to hit a provisional. At last, though, the scoreboard was changed to display a five, reflecting the fact that he had found his original ball. It was a touch embarrassing for Augusta officials, who pride themselves on impeccable accuracy. They corrected the error just as surreptitiously as they replace divot marks on the practice range with green-tinted soil.
Nobody needs to remind Garcìa that he is the logical heir to a long and noble tradition of Spanish success at Augusta. But he has tended to quail within sight of the prize. This year seems as apt as any to seize his first major title, at the 55thattempt, given that his idol Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60 tomorrow.
As history has shown, the enduring spirit of Seve, who won the Green Jacket in 1980 and 1983, can be a powerful force. José Marìa Olazàbal, also a double Masters champion, agreed that a silhouette of his late, great friend should be emblazoned on the bags of his Ryder Cup players, who in 2012 fashioned one of the greatest comebacks in sport. Garcìa, who grew up a protégé of Ballesteros, hopes fervently that he can tap into that same seam of inspiration.
It will be far from straightforward. Garcìa is not the puppyish, exuberant prodigy of his youth, but a notoriously anxious finisher who wears the scars of his major agonies all too clearly. Neuroses creep over him like knotweed. One Saturday in 2010, when he toiled to a 76 that dropped him out of all contention, he looked as if he wanted to take a pitchfork to Augusta’s tauntingly perfect fairways. “He was struggling,” said Adam Scott, his playing partner that afternoon. “He didn’t enjoy himself.”
Hard as it is to believe about a golfer still only 37, Garcìa’s peak came almost two decades ago. Then, he was the strutting would-be usurper of Tiger Woods, who had run his rival compellingly close at the USPGA in 1999. The 18 years since have been more a tale of psychological frailties than of the major triumphs most perceived as his birthright. Nowhere has the torment been plainer at Augusta, where he has ranked in the top 10 just three times in 18 attempts. El Niño, as he was called as a teenager, once had an albatross here during a practice round but has seldom conjured such flourishes when it counted.
The discipline of his round yesterday was a promising sign. After he laid the platform with three straight birdies he start, he wobbled only slightly through Amen Corner, dropping a couple of strokes, only to make them up with an impressive late salvo that left him in the clubhouse at four under par. A 69, a quite brilliant round when set against the strength of the morning winds, suggested a new-found vigour and resilience.
This change in attitude can be traced, in large part, to Garcìa’s engagement in January to Angela Akins, a former Golf Channel reporter. Personal happiness and professional performance are closely correlated with a man of such mercurial Latin temperament as Garcìa. By his own admission, a break-up in 2009 from Greg Norman’s daughter, Morgan-Leigh, poleaxed him for months. This time, his emotions appear more balanced. “There are no worries outside, and you can concentrate on what you’re doing out on the course,” he said this week. “It definitely helps, I’m not going to lie. I’m looking forward to a lot of things that are coming not only my way, but Angela’s way. I’m excited about the future.”
It is a far cry from that woe-is-me diatribe four years ago, where he lamented his inadequacies on the major stage. His mind, so often questioned – not least by Sir Nick Faldo, who said he was “useless” at the 2008 Ryder Cup – now shows a stability where he can deliver the glory his talent deserves.