Rose and Garcia's duel in the sun, Masters style
Once it became apparent that this was a straight shoot-out between Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, for European golf fans, loyalties were divided.
In the blue corner, our Ryder Cup hero Sergio Garcia, a man who could have won any number of majors going back to the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah.
In the red corner, England’s Rose. Squeaky clean, a housewives’ favourite and all-round good egg.
The former hoping to win a major at the 74th attempt, on the day his countryman, Seve Ballesteros, should have been celebrating his 60th birthday.
The latter striving to become only the third Englishman, and the second consecutive, to don the Green Jacket.
Garcia has been finding new ways to fail to win majors since the previous millennium. But invariably, it has been in the US Open, Open and PGA Championships.
Let us not forget that it was at Augusta just a few years ago when the man himself said he didn’t have what it took to win here.
The 37-year-old has played in every Ryder Cup bar one since 1999. He has won tournaments all around the world, including at the Players Championship.
But until now the best he had managed at the majors was four (F-O-U-R) runner-up finishes. Two at the Open and two at the PGA. He also has a third at the US Open and a third at the PGA.
In total, 22 top 10s, an amazing 10 of them in the Open.
By comparison, his Masters record was modest. Yet it still included a 4th, back in 2004, and another two top 10s.
Having long ago concluded that Garcia was unlikely ever to be their darling, the Augusta patrons gradually realised that something historic could be about to materialise.
No wonder they cheered him down the stretch and chanted, most uncharacteristically, ‘Ser-gi-o, Ser-gi-o’ when he coaxed the winning putt in.
A man with a low, left-to-right ball flight and a universally acknowledged susceptibility on short putts had just conquered Augusta and won the Masters.
By that stage, it was hard to remember how the day had begun.
Garcia was the first to make a move, birdieing two of the first three holes to establish a useful lead. When Rose bogeyed the fifth, he trailed by three.
You sense if it had been the other way round that Garcia might have panicked. But Rose is a golfing stoic, and his equanimity was rewarded with three successive birdies from the sixth.
Now it was his playing partner’s time to feel the heat, and the result was consecutive bogeys to begin the back nine.
Rose was in control, and even more so when he found the 13th fairway before Garcia drove left of Rae’s Creek and into a bush that necessitated a penalty drop.
It appeared the result would be a Rose four and a Garcia six, which would have opened up a four-shot lead. But no – Garcia pitched and putted while Rose contrived to take five from the back of the green in two.
The Spaniard was re-invigorated and promptly birdied the 14th.
But that was nothing compared to what we were about to see on the par 5. Do not under-estimate the role of the drive: a great explosion of a power fade, low and powering forward, bounding down the hill to leave him within short-iron range.
When Garcia says ‘be good’ as an approach shot is in flight, he doesn’t just mean ‘please finish within 15 feet’. It more indicates that, as far as he is concerned, he doesn’t see how there can be any other result than the ball pitching in the hole.
Almost 10 years ago, in the play-off for the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, Garcia’s tee shot on the long par-3 16th rebounded off the flagstick and off the green. Here, under similar pressure, his approach shimmied up the pole before reluctantly spinning away. This time he was not to be denied, even if his eagle putt, inevitably, used every last roll to reach the hole.
Once more, Rose’s greatest virtue was his evenness. In went the birdie putt from three feet or so, dead centre. And when Garcia’s tee shot at the 16th made its way towards the giant plug hole that is the Sunday pin position, he calmly followed him into similar range and stroked home the birdie putt. It was not, truth told, a surprise, that Garcia could not match the birdie.
Yet still there was another twist to come – Rose was out of position all the way up the 17th and duly took five.
Halves in birdie threes would have been the ideal way to conclude regulation play but we had to settle for par 4s.
In the play-off, while Rose wilted, Garcia didn’t blink. He made a birdie three at the 18th with a career’s-worth of expectation weighing down on him.
In doing so, he joined his childhood heroes Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal as Spanish Masters champions.
So what was different this time? Well, previously, Garcia has claimed that the fates were against him.
And if you want to look at superstitions, and omens, then try this. Over the week, on the 13th of all places, Garcia’s ball three times conspired to stay out of Rae’s Creek. Twice his approach shots stuck on the bank when we were awaiting the telltale ripples. And on Sunday, he managed to save par despite a penalty drop from some shrubbery to the left of the water hazard.
His scores over the four rounds were 5, 6, 4 and 5. They could so easily have been 6, 6, 6 and 6.
Sometimes, if you are so inclined, it seems like it was meant to be. This was meant to be.
Welcome to the major club, Sergio. We’ve been expecting you. For almost 20 years.
Still, better late than never.
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