AUGUSTA, Ga. — Now the world knows why Sergio Garcia leaped so high and kicked up his heels in that famous scene nearly two decades ago. He was dreaming of a day like Sunday when he earned the feeling of walking on air.
Garcia won the Masters, emphatically and dramatically, albeit much later than he and many observers had expected. He overcame Justin Rose and years of frustration to finally become a major champion. After a spirited comeback on the back nine and a birdie on the first hole of a playoff, Garcia put on the green jacket.
“It has been an amazing week,” he said, “and I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of my life.’’
His history suggests that the amazing part was not just this one week but that he had kept striving after entering 73 majors and never before coming out with a victory. He joked last night that the dreaded title “best player never to have won a major” had not been so terrible. “At least ‘best player,’ there’s a good thing there,” he said with a smile.
He exploded onto the scene in 1999 at the PGA Championship, where, in the final round, he blasted a shot from the base of a tree (turning his head away to keep dirt from getting in his eyes), then running down the fairway, jumping to see where his ball had gone.
Months before that, the 19-year-old had been the low amateur at his first Masters. The tournament was won that year by Jose Maria Olazabal and was the last time until Sunday that the green jacket went to a Spaniard.
Olazabal sent a touching, encouraging note to Garcia this past week. “He mentioned, you know, ‘Just know what you have to do. Just believe in yourself,’ ” the new champion said, also very mindful that his other idol, the late Seve Ballesteros, was born 60 years ago Sunday. Joining them “as Masters champions from Spain, it’s unbelievable,” Garcia said.
Sunday’s round appeared to be heading the way so many others have for him. Having begun the final day tied with Rose and playing with his longtime friend in the last group, Garcia trailed by two entering the 13th hole. He put himself in jeopardy of falling even further behind when he drove left, off a tree and into a bush, incurring a drop and one-stroke penalty. But he punched out, got on with the next shot and made par just before Rose missed a birdie putt.
That changed the momentum in the twosome, which pulled away from the field in what had figured to be a multi-player shootout. It took on a match-play feel, with each player gaining and losing an advantage. A highlight for Garcia was the 189-yard 8-iron second shot into the par-5 15th hole. It nearly went in on a fly and landed 12 feet away. When he made the eagle putt, he double- clutched, then fired a fist pump.
Rose could have pretty much put it away on No. 17 but missed a six-foot par putt and fell back into a tie. “I would say this one probably is one that slipped by, for sure,” the runner-up said. “Could I have made the putt on 17? Of course I could. But for the most part, I’m not going to sit here and second-guess one or two shots.”
He was happy for his frequent Ryder Cup teammate, and their day was marked by sportsmanship — Rose’s wife and Garcia’s fiancee hugged before the playoff. Which is not to deny the competitiveness. “It’s going to sting for sure,” Rose said. “I’d like to win three or four green jackets, but one would be enough, you know.”
Both players missed birdie putts on the final hole of regulation. But when Rose drove off a tree into the pine straw on No. 18 in the playoff, it left the table clear for the man who has been waiting so long.
The champion reiterated what he had been saying all week, that he has become more accepting, of Augusta National and life in general. He blew kisses to the supportive crowd around the green and happily pounded his hands on the green, perhaps symbolic of having kept his feet on the ground all these years after he jumped in the air.
“Because of where my head was at times, I did think, ‘Am I 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,” the man in the green jacket said.
He added that he had come to grips with the reality that if a major victory didn’t happen, “it’s not going to be a disaster.”
“But,” he said, smiling again, “it has happened.”