The most important part of Sergio Garcia's second consecutive European Tour victory was neither his continued ball-striking brilliance nor his unforeseeable resurgence on the greens.
It was his fist-pump.
To be clear, it wasn’t the technical aspect of his celebratory form that was so meaningful. It was the emotion he displayed in the process.
When Garcia holed the clinching putt at Valderrama to win by one stroke on Sunday and back up a title at his hometown course eight days earlier, there was no subdued, benign reaction to his achievement. Instead, he elicited a mammoth roar accompanied by a ferocious fist-pump – the reflection of a man who wanted nothing more than to taste victory once again.
That may sound like the standard response for anyone who competes for a living, but it wasn’t always this way for Sergio. In order to truly appreciate the moment, we have to look at all of those moments before it when winning – and even just competing – meant so little.
One year ago, he was ensconced in a self-imposed leave of absence. If that sounds strange, it should. College professors take sabbaticals, not professional golfers. He wasn’t feeling passion for the game anymore, though, and so he went cold-turkey and stopped competing.
Then again, maybe it shouldn’t sound so strange. Garcia has never measured his self-worth by success, once responding to a question about the importance of winning a major championship by contending, “It's important, but it's not the main thing in my life. If I don't win a major championship, it doesn't mean that I'm going to be unhappy or less happy than I will be if I do.”
And so he stopped playing in pursuit of happiness. He spent quality time with family, celebrated friends’ birthdays and played soccer. He served as an assistant captain for the victorious European Ryder Cup team. He did everything but play golf.
When he returned, Garcia was hardly a relaxed, refreshed version of his former self. On the contrary, he was still an angst-ridden enigma who wasn’t completely positive that competing again served his best interests.
On a blustery day in New York City in February, during a promotional appearance for his equipment manufacturer, he manifested as what has so often been described as the stereotypical Sergio, which is to say he was surly, moody, petulant and whiny.
He was also honest to a fault, his long-ingrained method of failing to sugarcoat any subject still very much alive. This is a man who once suggested that the golf gods had robbed him of capturing the Open Championship. So often he was a public relations nightmare and a journalist’s dream.
Asked that day to handicap his break from the game, he confidently claimed, “It was great. It was awesome. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.”
When prodded to elaborate, he added, “You get to travel a lot, you get to meet a lot of nice people, but at the same time you miss a lot of things to do. What people don't realize, they look at you and say, ‘He's only been playing for 11 or 12 years.’ But it's not true. I've been traveling and missing Christmas and missing friends' birthdays – things like that – since I was 12. So after a while, you do need a little bit of a break to kind of see things a little clearer.” Read between the lines and you’ll see someone who wishes that break had never ended.
Fast forward six months and Garcia is once again in the greater Metropolitan area, but his frame of mind is a world away from that previous encounter. His churlishness has been replaced by joviality; his angst disintegrated into serenity.
Once again, he speaks openly about his struggle to find a balance between his personal and professional lives, but he does so with a smile on his face. Rather than subsisting inside that vortex of pressure, there’s a sense that it is all a part of the past, a time in his life he can still discuss, but is no longer battling.
“I feel much better about myself,” he said in August, just before The Barclays. “I try not to take things as seriously. Don’t get me wrong – that doesn’t mean that I’m not trying and I’m not giving it my best out there, but that’s how I’m taking it. I give it my best and sometimes my best is not that good. I’ve just got to deal with it. And then when my best is in good shape, then I’m out there contending like we’ve done this year in four or five tournaments. I’m excited about it. I’m obviously enjoying the game a lot more than I probably did the last couple of years and I’m just looking forward to keep going in this same direction.”
At the time, it wasn’t difficult to foresee impending success for Garcia. He has now delivered on that premonition, claiming a pair of titles in consecutive weeks and ascending to 18th on the Official World Golf Ranking.
Sure, there may be technical parts of his game that are flourishing more than in the past. His drives may be going straighter and deeper, his iron shots may be more precise, his putting may be armed with more confidence.
Such talents have always endured for Sergio, though. His current success is all about desire and attitude; it’s about clearing mental hurdles in order to allow the physical gifts to thrive in competition.
That’s why his reaction on Sunday was so important. That celebratory fist-pump wasn’t just the culmination of triumph over a field of opponents; it was the culmination of triumph over himself. This is a man who has overcome multiple obstacles in the past 12 months, the least of which isn’t his ambition toward winning – and even just competing – both of which meant so little not so long ago.
When asked about this newfound perspective after his victory, he said, “I’m just happy with my year. We all know how difficult golf is. This is a working process; I’ll keep working on it, and trying hard and enjoying it.”
The talent of Sergio Garcia is obvious – always has been, always will be. If his enjoyment and desire remain, success will continue to follow.