AUGUSTA, Ga. — You can have your Super Bowl, your NBA Finals, your World Series, Final Four, Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500.
For me, the ultimate sporting event is the Masters, which I had the privilege of covering again for the past week, keeping an eye on Utah’s Daniel Summerhays as he played in his first Masters. Once again the tournament lived up to expectations Sunday with a thrilling finish, capped by Sergio Garcia’s victory on the first playoff hole at Augusta National.
Garcia was a popular winner, which is a bit surprising considering how he hasn’t been well liked by a lot of golf fans over the years. Perhaps it’s because of his often petulant behavior on and off the golf course. Maybe it was his slow play and "twitching," which caused him to be booed by fans at the U.S. Open a decade ago. He’s also been labeled as a choker for his inability to win big tournaments.
But I’ve always kind of liked the guy and was happy to see him win late Sunday afternoon and finally claim his first major title.
Perhaps it goes back to 2000 when I first interviewed him at the U.S. Open when he was just 20 years old, right before he was coming to Utah that summer to play in Johnny Miller’s Champions Challenge. He seemed like a nice kid and he was a hit with the local crowds when he played at Thanksgiving Point.
Garcia was certainly a popular winner with the gallery at Augusta, who urged him on throughout the back nine either in English or Spanish, just when it looked like he was going to come up short again.
I actually felt a bit sorry for Justin Rose, a good guy and a gracious loser who had a great chance to win before missing a pair of short putts coming in. When Rose missed a short putt at 17 to fall back into a tie with Garcia, a huge cheer went up a few seconds later at No. 18 when the leaderboard brought the news.
The old saying goes that the Masters starts on the back nine Sunday afternoon, and that certainly seemed to be the case this year.
It looked like a two-man race between Garcia and Rose, who began the day in a tie at 6-under par, just ahead of former Masters winners Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott as well as Rickie Fowler, also going for his first major. Garcia took an early three-shot lead on the front nine only to bogey 10 and 11 and look like the old Garcia about to blow another major.
As I headed down to Amen Corner to follow the leaders, a huge roar went up from over by the 16th hole. It sounded like a hole-in-one cheer and indeed it was, as Matt Kuchar did the honors. The roar reverberated off the tall pine trees and could not only be heard all over Augusta National but probably two counties away. You also heard three roars — the initial sustained roar, one when Kuchar presumably got to the green and another when he picked his ball out of the cup.
Kuchar had started the day at even par, but that put him at 5-under, and with two holes left he was within striking distance. Later, Belgian Thomas Pieters jumped into contention with four straight birdies from 12 to 15 to get to 6-under, only to fall back with a bogey at the next hole.
That left Garcia and Rose to battle it out in the final twosome, and they put on quite a show.
After hitting into the creek at 13 and taking a penalty, Garcia recovered to make par and Rose also made par from the back of the green. A possible two-shot swing turned out to be a draw.
Garcia birdied 14 to pull within one and then made a spectacular eagle at 15 when his approach shot hit the flagstick and ended up 15 feet away from where he made the putt. Rose made birdie to put both golfers at 9-under.
At 16, Rose went ahead by sinking an 8-foot putt as Garcia missed a 6-footer. But at 17, Rose missed a short putt to fall back into a tie. Both players missed putts within 8 feet at the final hole, before Garcia won on the first playoff hole with a birdie.
With his victory, Garcia won’t be known as the “best golfer never to win a major” and he has become a beloved champion for many.
“This week the support was amazing — I felt like I was back in Spain,” Garcia said. "It’s been a long wait, but it’s that much sweeter. It’s been an amazing week, and I’ll enjoy it for the rest of my life.”
Good for you, Sergio.