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AUGUSTA, Ga. — You didn’t need special sensory powers here Sunday to realize a lot more people wanted Sergio Garcia to win the Masters than would have in the years past.
At the No. 1 tee of Augusta National Golf Club when the last pairing of the day were about to hit their first shots of their final rounds, the fans were very welcoming to England’s Justin Rose.
But it was a pro-Garcia gallery following the pair, from that tee box to their second visit of the day to the 18th green. That’s where the Spaniard won his first major championship with a birdie putt after Rose bogeyed the hole.
In the parking lot of my Augusta motel Sunday morning, a foursome of Masters ticket-holders from Argentina were capping a monthlong golf-playing/golf-watching vacation in the U.S. by attending this nation’s most-famed tournament.
I asked the four men who they wanted to win today. “Rickie Fowler,” the first one said. But then, the answers were “Sergio.” “Sergio,” and a forceful “Sergio!”
Garcia had 22 Top Ten finishes in majors, and was a runner-up four times. He is 37, and he had gone from being scorned by fans to becoming a sympathetic figure.
“(The fans) realized he’d paid his dues and come close so many times,” Rose said later. “I get my fair share of love and support on the PGA Tour most of the time. Obviously, they felt it was his time.”
Rose has won a U.S. Open, and claimed the men’s golf gold medal for England at last year’s Summer Olympics. Garcia’s golf bio bordered on Shakespearean.
But sports stories change. After the third round of the 2012 Masters, Garcia said “I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. In 13 years today the conclusion is I need to play for second or third place.”
Asked if he meant in the Masters, he replied: “In any major.”
Sunday, he played like a champion. He got off to a good start when everyone else who began the day high on the leaderboard stalled. But Rose got rolling with birdies on the 6th, 7th and 8th holes, and Garcia had consecutive bogeys on 10 and 11 to fall two shots behind Rose.
On the par-5 13th, Garcia’s tee shot landed in a grove of bushes and had to take a penalty drop. But he made a magnificent par-save, and Rose failed to take advantage of a good chance at a birdie putt.
Garcia pulled within a shot of Rose when he birdied 14. Then he eagled the par-5 15th with a 14-foot putt. Rose birdied the hole, leaving them tied for the lead at 9-under-par and no one else within three strokes.
Rose made an 8-foot birdie putt at 16 to regain the lead, but Rose bogeyed the 17th, and they were tied going to the final hole. There, Rose missed a 10-footer for birdie and covered his mouth in agony, knowing Garcia had a 5-footer for the win. But he missed it.
They went back to 18 for the playoff. Rose’s tee shot went wide right, landing in pine needles. Garcia put his on the fairway. That was that, as it took Rose three shots to get to the green before he two-putted.
Needing two putts from 12 feet to win, Garcia got it done in one and pounded a fist into the green.
Garcia was a bouncy, happy-go-lucky 19-year-old who finished a shot behind Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship. He instantly made legions of fans, and they dreamed big dreams for him.
But as years passed and the majors weren’t won, Garcia gained a reputation as a complainer, someone who found excuses for everything that didn’t go his way. He had little of his former boyish enthusiasm. But as sweet had gone sour, sour had recently begun to lose its tart.
“I felt a calmness I’ve never felt on a major Sunday,” Garcia said. “Even after making a couple bogeys I was still positive.”
Garcia’s comments out of frustration here in 2012 were the storm before the calm.
“Lately I’ve gotten some good help and have been thinking a little bit more positive,” he said. “I was kind of accepting if for whatever reason (winning a major) didn’t happen, my life was still going to go on and not be a disaster.
“To be totally honest, I’m very happy. I don’t feel any different. I’m obviously thrilled about what happened here today, but I’m still the same guy, the same goofy guy.”
Garcia had played 73 majors without a win, the most in golf history. His new history is a lot better.