The first half of Masters week was about who was absent.
Tiger Woods made a brief appearance at the Champions Dinner on Tuesday, then disappeared so quickly it was hard to be certain he had actually been there.
On Thursday morning, Arnold Palmer’s spirit was very much present during the opening ceremony, but the tears shed by both Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as they hit their tee shots were a reminder that the Masters would have go on without him.
And then, a few hours later, came the news that the world No. 1, Dustin Johnson, wasn’t going to make it off the first tee, the victim of a fluke accident – a slip on the steps of his rented house that wrenched his back.
And so, it was left to the other 93 players to go about making history, because when the dust clears on Masters Sunday every year, someone makes history.
A year ago, it was Danny Willett, blowing past the faltering Jordan Spieth to become a Masters champion. Willett culminated a difficult 12 months since he slipped on the green jacket by beginning the tournament 6-6 on Thursday, then opened his second round with a quadruple bogey-8 on the first hole and missed the cut by a shot.
Charley Hoffman was the star the first day, shooting a miraculous 65 on a day when the scoring average was just over 75, giving him a startling four-shot lead on the field.
By Friday, Hoffman had come back to the pack and a name popped up on the leaderboard that raised eyebrows and produced murmurs and questions that had been heard often in the past: Sergio Garcia.
Bill Clinton was president in 1999 when Garcia barged onto the golf scene at age 19. He was low amateur at the Masters that year and got to share the stage during the awards ceremony with one of his boyhood heroes, Jose Maria Olazabal, who won his second Masters that year.
Four months later, as a brand new pro, he chased Tiger Woods to the finish line in the PGA Championship. A little more than a month later, he became the youngest player in Ryder Cup history and played very well the first two days as Europe built the 10-6 lead that the Americans would overcome on Sunday.
He was El Nino – the boy – and he was going to be Woods’ challenger in the 21st century. He was the Spanish successor to the legacy of Seve Ballesteros and Olazabal.
Only it didn’t quite work out like that. Garcia was a very good player but he never lived up to the potential he had flashed as a teenager. He won on the PGA Tour; he won in Europe and around the world. He was a superb Ryder Cup player, part of five winning teams.
But the majors eluded him. He came close, barely missing a 7-foot putt at Carnoustie that would have won The Open, before losing a playoff to Pardraig Harrington. A year later, at Oakland Hills, Harrington caught him from behind to beat him at the PGA Championship. In all there were 22 top-10 finishes, but no victories. He had a Hall of Fame resume with one massive, glaring hole.
He wore the label, Best Player Never to Have Won a Major, for a while and then lost it when his game went south – notably in 2010 when he took a break from playing because he was so discouraged. He went to the Ryder Cup that year as one of Colin Montgomerie’s vice captains, a week that turned out to be a crucial moment in his career.
“It made me realize how lucky I had been to play in so many Ryder Cups,” he said one evening last year. “It reminded me how much I loved golf, how much I enjoyed competing. I was still young – I had only just turned 30. I knew there was time for me to play well again.”
The most important part of Garcia’s epiphany during that week in Wales was realizing he’d been lucky. He had never thought that way in the past. There had always been a woe-is-me side to him, in spite of all the money he’d made; the relationships he’d had with glamorous women; the victories he’d had through the years.
That changed, not all at once, but gradually. Two years later, after a bad day at the Masters, he told reporters he didn’t think he had what it took to win a major. It was a startling comment, especially since, at 32, he was a year younger than Phil Mickelson had been when he broke through at Augusta; two years younger than Ben Hogan had been when he won his first major. At that point, many figured that the time for Garcia to win a major had passed.
There was one more low moment, the foolishly insensitive comment about Woods and fried chicken during a European Tour dinner the week after he and Woods had traded barbs at The Players Championship. The two men never liked one another – some of it was competitive, but much of it was personal.
“That was a low moment,” Garcia said. “A lot of it was because I was the one at fault. Tiger and I just never hit it off. We’re very different people. But that wasn’t an excuse for me to say something like that.”
The fact that Garcia could point the finger at himself three years later was a sign of his maturation.
He talked last Friday about how he had finally learned to accept the good and the bad on the golf course, especially at Augusta, a place that will take away just as quickly as it gives.
On Sunday, Ballesteros’s 60th birthday, Garcia backed up those comments. By the time he and Justin Rose got to the 10th tee, it was almost a certainty that one of them was going to be the Masters champion. Garcia promptly went bogey-bogey to drop two shots behind and then smacked his tee shot on 13 off a tree and into a bush, where he had to take a drop.
At that moment, it looked as if Rose might stroll to his second major title. He was in the fairway, in prime position to make birdie. Garcia had to layup with his third shot. Somehow, he got up and down for par. Somehow, Rose failed to make birdie, missing a 6-foot putt. What could have been a three- or four-shot lead was still only two.
Given life, Garcia responded as he had never responded in the past: two great shots led to a birdie at 14; two more great ones led to an eagle at 15. Suddenly, it was a tie ballgame and it stayed that way through 18, both men missing makeable putts as the pressure built.
One might have thought Garcia had again missed his chance when his 6-foot birdie putt at 18 slid right. But Rose gave him an opening with a wayward tee shot on the first playoff hole and this time Garcia’s birdie putt – when all he needed was a two-putt – found the hole and his knees buckled in disbelief. Eighteen years later, El Nino had finally grown up to be a major champion.
It was a victory greeted with cheers by virtually everyone in golf. Even Rose, as gracious in defeat as anyone could be, talked about how happy he was for Garcia.
Now, the Hall of Fame resume is complete. Now, there will be no more questions about not winning a major, about what might have been.
Last fall, after hearing chants of “no majors” throughout the weekend at Hazeltine during the Ryder Cup, Garcia said he hoped to be on the European Ryder Cup team in 2020 at Whistling Straits so he might hear a different chant.
“I’d like to hear them chant, ‘one major,’ or maybe ‘two majors,’” he said, laughing. “At the very least, I’d like one.”
He’s got it now. One major, no chants. Few have deserved a victory more.