Finally! Sergio Garcia’s major Masters moment was worth the (very long) wait

Only one other name was atop the leaderboard down the stretch Sunday at the Masters, but Sergio Garcia had far more to overcome than the formidable U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. The 37-year-old Spaniard was also battling 18 years of golfing demons, the ghosts of 73 majors past and the specter of the one that was about to get away.

But after surviving missed putts at Nos. 16, 17 and 18 (the latter a five-footer that would have been a near-gimme in any place besides the final green at Augusta), golf’s most famous bridesmaid got it done on the first playoff hole, eliciting a roar from an 18th green in Georgia that rumbled all the way to his native Spain.

It should have been over long before. On No. 16, Garcia yanked a short birdie putt that would have kept him even with Rose. On No. 17, he turned over his putter in the middle of his backswing, panicking at the thought of his read and trying to redirect the putt into the hole. He came up three feet short. And then on No. 18, with a chance for one of the rarest moments in golf – a birdie to win the Masters – Garcia badly misread a putt and pushed it wide, surprisingly exactly nobody except himself.

There was no reason to think the playoff would be any different. There was too much baggage on that tee box. Then Garcia watched Rose yank his tee shot into the pine straw and smoked his drive in perfect position down the right side of the fairway. Advantage: Garcia. After Rose punched out from the trees and was one shot behind Garcia with their balls separated by a few feet on the fairway, Garcia knew that getting his approach close would almost certainly win him the Masters. It was those putts all over again. That elusive major was on his club. This time, Garcia stuck it to 10 feet.

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Every Masters has its “moment,” the one that shifts the tournament and goes down in history and becomes etched in the memory of every sports fan as it’s replayed every year, again and again, part of the self-sustaining mythology of Augusta.  Jack’s putt at 16. Tiger’s chip at 16. Fred Couples ball staying dry on No. 12. Jordan Spieth’s not. This year it came on the famed par-5 No. 13, when Sergio was down two shots and tried to make up the deficit on one heroic swing. But he hooked that drive, took an unplayable penalty and seemed on the verge of going down four shots with Rose sitting two over the green. Somehow, Garcia punched out, got it up and down, parred the hole and when Rose needed three shots to get in, there was no blood drawn. Two holes later, Sergio would get that eagle, tying him with Rose at nine-under.

Those 73 majors had been the third-most in history for any player without a major win; Lee Westwood is the only active player with more – he was at No. 75 entering the Masters. Sergio had played in every major since he burst onto the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship as a peppy teenager sprinting and jumping down fairways while challenging Tiger Woods, who was on the precipice of the greatest stretch of golf in the history of the sport. Back then, it seemed a matter of years, if not months, before Garcia got in the column.

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Time passed. Sixty-eight starts, 21 top 10s and three more runner-ups. There were nine PGA Tour victories, 30 worldwide titles and nine Ryder Cup teams (with a stellar 19-11-7 record that belied his reputation in majors). Eighteen years of golf, controversy, drama and growing up. In that time, Garcia’s image did a full 360, from the lovable kid to a reproached bad boy to the endearing, quasi-tragic figure adored stateside and around the world.

There was never the signature loss, however – nothing like Phil at Winged Foot or Greg Norman at the ’96 Masters. Bad Sunday rounds and Tiger were the cause of his near-misses. A lip-out par putt at Carnoustie on the 72nd hole of the 2007 British Open was the closest call. The hard-luck reputation wasn’t built in a day, but was instead a slow build. It’s a situation unique to golf: Where else can you succeed and fail for two decades before tasting the ultimate victory?

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Sergio is just 37 and there’s every reason to think years of top-notch golf are in front of him. With that monkey off his back and resting at the bottom of Rae’s Creek, will there be more to come? Phil Mickelson shed his “best player to never win a major” label 12 years ago on this same Sunday and then captured another Slam victory in each of the next two years before adding to that total in 2010 and 2013. Garcia’s Spanish heroes – the late Seve Ballesteros (who was the first European champion at Augusta and, in a touching bit of serendipity, would have turned 60 on Sunday) and Jose Maria Olazabal – both won two Masters. Sergio stepped foot into their clubhouse with his win on Sunday but needs to again put on the green jacket to join. Will he get on the same roll as Phil and start winning majors with regularity?

The final moments of the 2017 Masters might be a barometer of that uncertain future. When Rose missed his par putt in the playoff, it was all but over. Garcia had two putts from within 10 feet to win. Easy. The pressure had been lifted. All those tournaments and the shots that sealed his fate in them were part of a new past. Two putts. But Sergio Garcia didn’t need two. He drained the first. See what can happen when the weight of the world comes off your shoulders?