The day began with a leaderboard that only Arnold Palmer’s name could enhance.
Prominent among the last four pairings to tee off on a sun-drenched Sunday at Augusta National were a U.S. Open champion and Olympic gold medalist, three Masters champions, a Ryder Cup hero and a four-time winner on the PGA Tour who’d led the first two days of the tournament.
Oh, and Sergio Garcia. Golf’s runner-up.
But he’s an also-ran no more. The story line that golf’s favorite whipping boy could not win a major championship ran out of steam near dusk amidst the loblolly pines and a legion of doubters when he birdied the 73rd hole of the tournament to win a sudden-death playoff over Justin Rose.
Garcia had won the Masters. In very un-Sergio-like style — shrugging off adversity, prevailing in a sudden-death playoff and showing his new resilient, peaceful and, yes, charming style.
Golf won, too, even though the immediate television rankings were down 11 percent, probably because no American made a charge on the back nine. In the final two hours, viewers barely caught a glimpse of an American golfer like the beloved Phil Mickelson or child prodigy Jordan Spieth or the gaudily dressed Rickie Fowler, all of whom faded badly. Matt Kuchar had to throw in an ace on 16 to give a U.S. golfer some air time.
You sure couldn’t tell interest was down from the size of the galleries. They don’t reveal how many badges are issued at the Masters each year, but personal observations would indicate bigger numbers than ever.
For a sport that’s still trying to climb out of a post-Tiger Woods malaise, Garcia’s incredible Masters victory served to remind fans, even those of the casual variety, that golf doesn’t just belong to the 20-somethings.
Garcia, a polarizing, if prickly figure for much of his 19-year PGA Tour career, had been shut out in his last 73 tries at a major but hung on to win at age 37. Heck, 37 is almost in the whippersnapper neighborhood if you consider Fred Couples was shooting 1-over par, 57 years and all. This was almost an AARP special because the youngsters all faded.
Two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw all but predicted Garcia might reverse his fortunes. He played a round with Garcia the week before at Austin Golf Club and left the course in awe of how well he was hitting the ball.
“I told (his wife) Julie I’ve never seen a player hit that well,” Crenshaw told me on Monday. “He drove the ball so well. It was the most beautiful round I ever saw. I thought he was going to do very well.”
Garcia made a prophet out of Crenshaw when he became the first Masters champion to win with four sub-par rounds.
“I think it’s great for golf,” Crenshaw said. “You saw a supremely talented player vindicated. There was a lot of perseverance there. There’s no one who is in that category of not winning a major who doesn’t want to get that monkey off their back. Sometimes it takes people longer.”
The average age of the last four majors winners was 36 years old. At 31 then, Dustin Johnson was the youngest, winning his first major at the U.S. Open, and Henrik Stenson the oldest, holding off another old-timer in 46-year-old Mickelson in their epic British Open battle.
In golf, you don’t have to be 27 to win a major. Couples was sort of in contention at age 57, and he’s had 20 Top 25 finishes at Augusta. It’s the only sport where a 46-year-old like Jack Nicklaus can win a Masters and Mickelson can make some serious noise about doing so for the fourth time. Geezers are welcome. Gary Player’s so fit, he still looks like he could break par.
In many respects, professional golf couldn’t be healthier because it’s a free-for-all. It’s no more Jack versus Arnie or Tiger tantalizing Phil.
Consider that eight different players have won the last eight majors, dating to Spieth’s U.S. Open victory at Chambers Bay. Since then, the winners have been Zach Johnson, Jason Day, Danny Willett, Johnson, Stenson, Jimmy Walker and Garcia.
So now that Garcia has broken through, who inherits the mantel of best golfer never to win a major? If you discount 43-year-old Lee Westwood — and none of us should — the 28-year-old charismatic Fowler’s a strong nominee, having once finished in the top five of all four majors.
The latter has evolved into one of the most popular players on Tour. Although Masters fans were going gaga over Spieth and the flamboyant Fowler dressed out in his gaudy Oklahoma State-orange pants and cap, many were putting Sergio on their collective shoulders. For a player who’d angered the golf gods and Tiger and the American public, all seemed forgotten in a wave of sentimentality as the gallery on the 18th green chanted, “Ser-gi-o, Ser-gi-o.”
Old slights had been forgiven, even for an old golfer from another country.