The 2017 Masters began the way it ended — with tears in the eyes.
On Thursday morning, it was Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus paying tribute to their great friend and fellow legend Arnold Palmer with the traditional ceremonial opening tee shot. On Sunday evening, it was Sergio Garcia who had finally, after all these years, won his first major.
The tears in Sergio’s eyes said it all. We never thought he would get there. More significantly, there was a time when he never thought he would get there.
At the 2012 Masters, Garcia was brutally honest about his chances to ever win a major championship:
“That’s the reality. I’m not good enough and today I know it. I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological. … After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the majors. That’s it.”
One of the unique things about golf, though, is that the top athletes are given more time than in almost any other sport. The prime of an NFL running back is only a few years. If you’re an Olympic athlete, you may only get one shot at glory. Even the best athletes in other pro sports might have 10 to 15 years to win a championship. And if they aren’t surrounded by the right pieces and the right talent, they may never have a real opportunity to do so.
However, if you’re good enough to have a long golf career, you’ll get your fair share of chances to etch your name into the history books as a major winner. Sergio Garcia finally did it in his 74th attempt on Sunday, a record wait for a golfer to win his first major.
The journey to becoming a major champion for Sergio was supposed to be a lot shorter and more straight-forward than that. He first exploded onto the scene as a 19-year-old at the 1999 PGA Championship where he went head-to-head with Tiger Woods down the stretch, including this memorable shot up against a tree. Although Garcia finished second, it was to be the beginning of a decades-long rivalry between the pair.
Of course, that rivalry never materialized as Garcia’s career sputtered. He showed signs of nerves when constantly gripping and re-gripping his club at the 2002 US Open, which drew restless responses from fans in the gallery at Bethpage Black.
His best chance to win a major would come five years later at the 2007 British Open where he infamously missed a short putt on the 72nd hole that would have won. Garcia would go on to lose in a playoff to Padraig Harrington. Sergio would have another close call at the 2008 PGA Championship when he again lost to Harrington thanks to a shot in the water on the 16th hole and a missed short birdie putt on the 17th hole in the final round.
For many years after that, Garcia was an afterthought in the major conversation. He had just three Top 5 finishes in 32 majors after the 2008 PGA Championship. His career epitaph was already being written as someone whose great potential was never fully realized and someone who was at times an immature or even villainous figure in the sport.
There was the time he spit into a hole at Doral and the time he made a racially insensitive remark about Tiger Woods. When he was battling Woods for the 2013 Players Championship, the crowd largely cheered when he dumped two in the water on the 17th at the iconic island green hole when tied for the lead.
And yet at the 2017 Masters, the crowd was responding to Garcia’s victory with chants of “Sergio-Sergio-Sergio.” Golfers from around the world were also cheering on Garcia’s victory, yes, including Tiger Woods.
Congrats @TheSergioGarcia. Well earned.
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) April 9, 2017
Where did all the love from Sergio come from as everyone was rooting for him to finally win that first major on Sunday?
No sport does the tragic hero better than golf does. When you’re a golf fan, or even if you just tune in to the four majors every year, you get to know the top players so well over the years. For Sergio, the mantra of “Best Player to Never Win a Major” has followed him around so long it might as well be attached to him like a giant boulder. In his specific case though, there was a sense of empathy amongst golf fans who were cheering for him on Sunday because at some point in life we’ve all been there.
We know how Sergio felt because we’ve battled those inner thoughts of self-doubt, those times when we thought we’d never make it or never amount to anything. The times when we seemingly had to accept fate and the facts that we wouldn’t be “good enough.” Sergio conquering those demons meant more to him and more to the fans holding their breath at Augusta and at home than defeating Justin Rose in a playoff. The evidence of Garcia’s maturation on and off the course has played a significant role in that as well.
There was no other way Garcia could win his first major. By coming from behind and by overcoming adversity on the Back 9 on Sunday. His chances looked gone in the trees on the 13th hole, but a miraculous par followed by a birdie and an eagle brought him into a tie for the lead. Then came the putt on the 72nd hole to win which echoed the missed chance at Carnoustie. The faces in the crowd said it all.
The faces behind Sergio Garcia are amazing pic.twitter.com/VmP4EA21rl
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 9, 2017
So when Garcia’s birdie putt on the playoff hole rolled around the cup and in, it wasn’t just the culmination of a fantastic duel with Justin Rose, it wasn’t just his first major championship, it was him overcoming everything that had happened in the past for a moment that was almost 20 years in the making. And the journey there made it that much sweeter.