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Coming to grips: Sergio Garcia's pursuit of happiness

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BORRIOL, Spain – Two months ago, Sergio Garcia stood on the first tee of Club de Campo del Mediterraneo taking long, easy breaths with his eyes closed, the crisp mountain air carrying sea salt from the nearby beaches of eastern Spain’s Costa del Azahar.

He was home. Although much in the now 38-year-old’s life has changed since he won the 2017 Masters – including marriage and fatherhood – his visceral bond with the place where he learned to play hasn’t. Set in a mountain valley dotted with olive and carob trees amid rugged terrain whose high point is the ancient hilltop castle overlooking the nearby town of Borriol, the course and its surrounds will always be where Garcia can return for reconnection and renewal.

Sergio’s father, Victor, became head professional at the then new course in 1978, two years before Sergio was born. His mother, Consuelo, who effusively ran the golf shop, says the course served as her middle child’s “big, green living room.” During his visit, Garcia recalled that from age 3, “I ran around the whole place, doing all kinds of kids things, hitting every kind of shot I could imagine, getting a total feel for the game.”

The memory further brightened an already visibly relaxed and happy Garcia. The frequency of that state has noticeably increased since his now-wife, Angela, entered his life in 2016. As his rivals have learned, it’s when Sergio the golfer is most dangerous. 

As he prepared to tee off, Garcia impishly showed no mercy to his guest and close friend, retired former world No. 1 tennis player Juan Carlos Ferrero. On a course where Garcia holds the course record, he only offered to give the avid 4-handicapper six strokes, drawing a sarcastic, “What a fine person you are,” from Ferrero. “I’m not going to give you so many that I’m going to lose,” said Garcia with the playful edge he honed on the club’s practice green 30 years ago, beating adult members out of soft drinks in putting contests. Then, on Mediterraneo’s friendly 350-yard, dogleg-left opener, Garcia – whose customary bullet cut with the driver is the envy of his peers – for probably the thousandth time slung a perfectly shaped hard hook around the corner and in front of the green. Rather than watch his ball, Garcia smiled evilly at Ferrero, who couldn’t stifle a laugh.

Nearby, three Spanish local juniors resumed hitting balls on the same ground where the young Garcia had developed his extreme downswing lag, a physical genius’ adjustment to keep up with the longer hitting older kids. Victor had the wisdom not to change the move that would prove to be his son’s ball-striking differentiator, and through the years continued to refine rather than rebuild as he’s remained his son’s only swing coach.

According to Consuelo, the father and son survived as teacher and student because of complementary chemistry. “They maintained an equilibrium that was sometimes difficult, but they worked it out because of the great love they have for each other, and the great love they have for the game,” she said in Spanish. “Sergio is like me in temperament – excitable – while my husband is serious and calm. Just as my husband and I get along because we are opposites, Victor and Sergio get along. Sometimes I had to be the mediator between them, but not often.”

Victor, Sergio and Consuelo Garcia when Sergio turned pro in 1999 (Getty Images)

GARCIA RECALLED that after making the winning putt against Justin Rose in sudden death at the Masters, the most prominent images in the millisecond montage that flashed in his brain were of early sessions with his father. It was from those formative years that he emerged with a freshness and innocence that more than 20 years ago gave such resonance to the nickname El Nino.

With so much emphasis on today’s young guns, it’s easy to forget how good Garcia was so young. At 15, he won the European Amateur, and made the cut at a European Tour event. Two years later, he won the 1997 Catalan Open as an amateur. After winning the British Amateur, he was low amateur at the 1999 Masters and a month later, in his first PGA Tour event as a pro, opened with a 62 at the Byron Nelson Classic and finished tied for third. Three months later he pushed Woods to the edge at the PGA Championship at Medinah, his running split-jump to see the result of a closed-eyed 6-iron from the base of a tree remains so iconic Garcia could still use its silhouette as his logo. El Nino was uber-talented, natural, freewheeling, joyful. The way everyone would experience golf in heaven.

In what still seems too short a period, the magic stopped. A lot of it was the way Garcia responded to Woods’ dominance, some was a lack of touch in the fame game. When big expectations – including a Tiger/Sergio rivalry – weren’t fulfilled and criticism followed, Garcia became peevish, hurting his popularity, and soon enough, his own enthusiasm for his profession. By 2003, struggling with the putter and his swing, he was contemplating leaving the game to return to school, or try to play professional soccer.

Sergio returns to Augusta a champion, recalls learning game from father

With Victor’s counsel, including marshaling an important swing adjustment that saw Garcia change his takeaway path from outside to straight back, he persevered, winning twice on the PGA Tour in 2004, and once more in 2005. But the confidence of Garcia’s youth had been damaged and his optimism blunted, and his next three victories in America were each four years apart. Meanwhile his winless streak in majors would extend to 0-73, albeit with four tantalizing seconds and two thirds. While respected swing gurus like Pete Cowen maintain that Garcia’s physical move from the top is more like Ben Hogan’s than any other player, mentally he spent much of his career as Hogan’s opposite. Unable to marshal the strong emotions that ruled a competitive temperament that could give in to self pity, Garcia settled into being a very good but not great player, a truly exceptional ball striker limited by a decided lack of resiliency and shakiness with the putter.

There’s no easy answer to why Garcia’s arc lost its trajectory. As Victor said about a decade ago when asked to assess his son’s career, “He’s done well, pero es complicado.” Which is another way of saying that Garcia suffered from being a prodigy.

It’s a much envied but also perilous persona. An informal scorecard of the phenomena in golf would record more flameouts than success stories. Woods transcended the difficulties. Rory McIlroy has largely surmounted them. Garcia has had more problems.

To those lucky enough to have seen all three in their teens, Garcia was arguably better at a younger age. Spanish professional Jose Manuel Lara remembers watching an exhibition in Spain in which a 15-year-old Garcia played with Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez and easily established that the quality of his strike and ball flight were superior to all three.

But hitting breathtaking shots does not eliminate prodigy baggage – it can even increase it. Overwhelmingly superior ability can create an entitled feeling toward winning, and a corresponding inability to handle losing. Rather than fight, the player who has been conditioned to believe he was selected for success will react petulantly to adversity, sinking into victimhood. For a long time, the locker room “book” on Garcia was “Stay close. When it gets tough, he’ll blow up.”

Woods was the rare prodigy who was prepared early to accept and even embrace the difficulty of golf, and combat it with grit. Grinding out a victory when the game became hard, more than simply playing brilliantly and winning on talent, was to him golf’s highest station.

For years this seemed a foreign concept to Garcia, whose playing fortunes and overall motivation seemed to often rest with the state of his life off the course. In 2010, after a four-year relationship with Morgan Norman ended, Garcia went into a deep funk in which he again contemplated quitting, ultimately leaving tournament golf for six weeks and forfeiting a chance to play in his favorite event, the Ryder Cup (where his record is a stellar 19-11-7). “I need to miss the game a little bit,” he said at the time.

“That break was important because I was going through a really tough time personally,” Garcia said in February. “I had started thinking I lost what I had because of the game. I would be on the course and every time I would make a bogey, I would start blaming the game for everything that was happening to me. I finally realized that was not the case. That I love the game for how difficult it is. For everything that it gives us, but also what it takes away from us. And realizing I couldn’t do anything else better.”

The more evolved perspective was the beginning of a gradual psychological breakthrough. Garcia also improved his putting by experimenting with different grips, including the claw. He posted more wins, bringing his total through 2016 to nine on the PGA Tour and 11 on the European Tour, along with three more top-five finishes in majors. He became better in the heat of fourth rounds, and when he failed, better at absorbing the disappointment. But in the big picture, the extent of his unrealized ability still made him an underachiever.

Victor, Angela, Sergio and Victor, Jr. after Sergio's '17 win at Valderrama (Getty Images)

LAST YEAR, HOWEVER, Garcia seemed to finally escape the persona of the lost and lonely prodigy. He emerged in January with an authoritative wire-to-wire victory in Dubai, where he had one of the best ball-striking weeks of his career in defeating Henrik Stenson by three.

Something had clicked, with the final proof coming at Augusta. What was it? For the boy who grew up in the big green living room surrounded by love and support, good things seem to start with family.

When Garcia entered a serious relationship with former Golf Channel reporter Angela Akins in 2016, he inherited a new set of advisors with an intense competitive perspective. Akins, a former high school basketball star and scholarship golfer at TCU and University of Texas in her hometown of Austin, proactively countered Garcia’s tendency to think himself unlucky, or that other players were luckier. At his victory news conference at the Masters, he noted how, after he had missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win, Akins gave him a low five of encouragement that bucked him up. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, what a shame, unlucky,’” Garcia said, affecting a whiny voice, “she was strong, saying, ‘C’mon, you got this, keep at it. You’re gonna do it.’ It was really nice to see that positivity.”

As Garcia had found out, Angela was part of a continuum passed down from her grandfather, legendary Texas high school football coach Ray Akins, through her father, Marty, an All-American quarterback at Texas in the early 70s. The accomplishments of the lineage – which includes Angela’s cousin, Drew Brees – and the patriarch’s force of personality was ultimately the validation for a philosophy whose basic tenet is “Believe that you are the best, and you’ll be the best.” Maybe, maybe not, but Marty, an avid golfer who for months encouraged and prodded Garcia even harder than Angela, will forever be able to point to his son-in-law’s green jacket as proof that he did something right. Said Garcia, “Marty is an amazing guy, and he has his way that I can work into my way.”

However much the Akins approach worked, others noticed that Garcia seemed more at peace. When a week before leaving for Augusta last year Garcia and his father shared a friendly round with Ben Crenshaw at the Austin CC, the two-time Masters winner called Garcia’s level of play “as close to perfect golf as I’ve ever seen” and more importantly, emphasized that Garcia’s calm demeanor was giving him, yes, a “good feeling.” “What Ben said gave me confidence,” said Garcia. “I came into the Masters the best I ever came into it, because of the way I was thinking. Which was, ‘Let’s really enjoy what there is at Augusta. Accept everything that is going to happen. And let’s see where it takes us.’”

His mother and father had also noted this more mature mindset, with Victor telling Consuelo that he thought Sergio would finally be able to have the patience to end his frustration at Augusta. For her part, Consuelo said she saw the beginnings of growth in her son during a family crisis five years ago.

A Masters champion receives a hero's welcome upon return to Spain

When the global financial crisis that ravaged Spain’s economy put the club on the brink of closing, Garcia stepped in, assuming all the club’s debt and installing a new business plan.

“This club was going to close,” said Consuelo. “I told Sergio, this is not an investment that will make you money. But it will do your heart good.”

By saving the club, Garcia restored the jobs of scores of people he knew, some old friends of his family who had seen him grow up. More importantly to Garcia, he did it for his father.

“For me it was easy,” he said in February. “This club is everything to my dad, his little baby. If I didn’t help out, he would have had a heart attack or a huge depression. We couldn’t let that happen. More than anything, it was a gift to my father.”

And so the club has gone on. Well-appointed, with a spa and tennis courts and a spacious clubhouse and dining area, but at the same time unfancy, with a membership that favors pull carts. Its charm lies in its lovely setting and playability, along with the constant small improvements that Victor Garcia has thought of over the years, many of the ideas coming from the great golf centers he has seen while following his son.

In the kitchen, longtime cook Sorin Miculescu always enjoys the chance to prepare Garcia’s favorite dish, arroz a banda (a paella-like mix of rice, fish and saffron) as an expression of appreciation. “The secret is in the wood fire, and the love,” he says. “Especially the love for the Garcia family.”

When Garcia returned to the club last September for the first time after winning the Masters, the members put on an impromptu welcome in which tears flowed. “Because he won the green jacket, yes,” said Consuelo. “But even more for doing what he for the club and its people. That day when he came back, it was like he was everyone’s little boy.” Here she pauses. “Actually, my son has become a fully grown man. The change in him happened before the Masters. It’s why he won the Masters.”

If so, it explains Garcia’s reaction upon finally greeting his father, who had watched the playoff from the Augusta clubhouse, in the moments after the victory. “When I saw my dad, I could see the joy in his face,” he said. “I think the moment meant even more to him. We didn’t say much. We couldn’t.”

Will Garcia win more majors? The odds are against it. Historically, only one player has ever compiled multiple majors after capturing his first at age 37 or later – Mark O’Meara, who won two in 1998 at age 41. But more than ever, with his marriage to Angela and his new daughter, Azalea, born March 14, he is well positioned.

“I have an amazing life,” he said in the afterglow of his victory. “I have so many people that care for me and love me and support me. I feel so nicely surrounded.”

Sergio Garcia is happier than he’s ever been. Watch out.