The truth is, even before Sergio Garcia became a major winner Sunday, he had won. He had won big. He had won us all over. All week, and Sunday in particular, he was the people’s choice.
This is what happens when you hang in there, take your lumps and keep coming back. He had failed to win a major in 73 tries before he finally won one. By the time he beat Justin Rose in a playoff and won the Masters last evening, he had become Ralph Branca. He had become Charlie Brown, gamely trying to kick that football just once. He had become the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.
Garcia was such a sympathetic figure that the man he beat — in a tense one-on-one contest that went on all afternoon, intensified on the back nine and ended amid long shadows — was OK with it. “If there’s anyone to lose to, it’s Sergio,” Rose said minutes after Garcia made the clinching birdie putt on the first extra hole. “He has had his fair share of heartbreak.”
We tend to root for people who have had their hearts broken over and over, even if they sometimes brought it on themselves or occasionally have felt sorry for themselves. Garcia went through the latter phase and had some other downturns on the way to maturity.
Fifteen years ago, he reacted angrily, with a crude gesture, when U.S. Open fans at Bethpage Black razzed him for taking too long with his pre-shot routine. Another time, he was so exasperated that he spit into the hole on a green. Yet another time, he made a racially insensitive remark about Tiger Woods.
That was not the Sergio Garcia who showed up at Augusta National this week. This Sergio, 37, was gracious and calm, saying he had made peace with the way the course gives and takes. This Sergio was more mellow and philosophical, and excited about being engaged to Golf Channel personality Angela Akins. As a result, people near the 18th green cheered when the big manual scoreboard showed that Garcia and Rose were tied after 17 holes. After he won, people chanted “Ser-Gee-Oh” at a place that hardly ever witnesses chanting.
Rose could not help noticing that Garcia was the crowd’s favorite. “I think they realized that he paid his dues,” the runner-up said.
While the round still was going on, Rory McIlroy, a friend of both golfers, tweeted, “Let him have one . . . VAMOS!” Right after the playoff was over, this entry appeared on Twitter: “Congrats @TheSergioGarcia. Well earned.” It came from the account of Tiger Woods.
Other people (make that television people) made a huge deal over the fact that Sunday would have been the late Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday. Yes, Ballesteros was an idol for Garcia when he was a youngster in Spain. But truth is, Garcia spoke about it only when someone asked him. Garcia’s own story, with its 18 years of exasperated waiting, is enough on its own.
The average person can identify with it. I never will forget what the TV announcer said when Tom Kite finally won the 1992 U.S. Open after many failures. The thrust of it was: “If you’re struggling with something in your life, you can overcome it . . . ”
It did not escape notice that Garcia had stopped whining about his fate. There is a lesson in the fact that he finally won a major after reaching the conclusion that it would be OK if he never did.
“To be totally honest,” he said while wearing the green jacket Sunday night, “I’m very happy but I don’t feel any different. I’m still the same guy, I’m still the same goofy guy. Lately, I’ve been thinking a little bit different, a little more positive. Kind of accepting, too, if it didn’t happen, my life was still going to go on.”
Another thing that crossed my mind Sunday night: Garcia’s sponsor appearance a few years ago at Bethpage, site of some old antagonism, during which he was totally engaging, well beyond his contractual obligations. One of the people there that day said, “Lovely guy. I hope he wins big.”
And, finally, he did.