I was surprised to find myself pulling so hard for Sergio Garcia Sunday.
I’m a hard core Tiger Woods fan. I jumped on board after his first Masters win in 1997.
He was 21. I turned 21 that fall. He was a peer who made a sport I liked to play cool when everyone that age thought the opposite.
Two years later, Sergio pranced into a duel with Tiger at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship. That made him the enemy.
The funny thing is, while I had never so much as spent time in the same zip code as Tiger, I met Garcia the summer before.
I interviewed him after he lost a semifinal match during the U.S. Amateur held at Oak Hill in 1998. He was 18 and already had the weight of notoriety and expectations thrust upon him.
Tom McKnight eliminated Sergio on the 17th hole after Garcia missed a long birdie. It was late in the day and, although he was one of the “stars” in the event, there weren’t more than 100 or so fans left when the match concluded.
I brought Sergio in the shade under a tree for the interview. There were no other reporters.
The camera my photographer used had a speaker on the outside. It amplified our voices enough that every fan remaining could clearly hear every word and boy, were they interested. Sergio dealt with less noise distraction for the interview than with any shot he hit that day.
I was fully aware of the impromptu audience listening intently to every word Garcia and, by extension, I said. It was pretty heady stuff for a kid barely out of college who didn’t even officially work in the sports department.
Sergio was a fun interview. Not super interesting, but cordial and thoughtful. It wouldn’t be the last time.
I chatted with Sergio one on one again at the 2003 and 2013 Oak Hill PGA Championships plus the PGA at Kiawah Island in 2012.
I never once interviewed Garcia to laud one of his wins or compliment a particular success. All were about the course, the event and his hopes of winning a first major.
Sergio was always fantastic and he always made time. Not every pro golfer does.
There’s no doubt Sergio has been responsible for plenty of his messes. The “fried chicken” remark in a spat with Tiger after the 2013 Players Championship. Succumbing to hecklers at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage with a single finger salute.
Regardless of responsibility, he’s endured a lot. As the famous Andy Dufresne line in Shawshank Redemption (aren’t they all?) goes, whatever sins Garcia did, he paid for them and then some.
It was time… and most of Augusta agreed.
I’m convinced Seve Ballesteros had a hand in helping Sergio finally across the finish line on what would have been Seve’s 60th birthday.
Ballesteros was first one of Garcia’s heroes, then his friend. Now, they’re both Spaniards who have won green jackets.
Garcia said after the round, “I felt calm. It’s the calmest I ever felt at a major championship on a Sunday.”
He did things he’s never done at a major on Sunday.
Not least of which, was have much of the crowd and America behind him.
I understand that the few minutes I’ve had with Sergio could easily not be a true picture.
It was still nice to see the respect he paid to me on multiple occasions paid back to him a thousand-fold.
When is Rory’s turn
If there was somewhere where I could bet against Rory McIlroy ever winning a green jacket, I’d do it.
I’m not betting the mortgage or my first born, but assuming I’d get pretty big odds from whoever took the wager, I’d put something nice down.
McIlroy posted his fourth consecutive top ten in the Masters this week. He also didn’t post the 77 or 79 that usually blows up his weekend stroll through the azaleas.
However, only one of those top tens is also a top five and it gets worse.
McIlroy has broken 70 only five times in his last five tries at the Masters. Four of those 60s are in the final round of an event when he was already out of contention. The fifth was two years ago in round three when Jordan Spieth has already rendered EVERYONE out of contention.
The putting issues that have plagued McIlroy the last few years are only exacerbated at Augusta and the course renders his great strengths nearly moot.
McIlroy is almost certainly the best driver of the golf game in the game. At Augusta, everyone can reach all four par-5’s in two. The short par-4 third is a pitch and putt for everyone. The rough is not punishing (or even the pine straw as Spieth proved Saturday) and the fairways are not overly tight.
McIlroy’s ability to hoist an iron shot and stick it on a green is nearly peerless. At Augusta, iron shots are about finding the right section of a green and using the slopes to nestle the ball close. There’s more margin for error and it negates Rory’s precision.
Winning at Augusta has always been about putting and McIlroy just doesn’t do that well enough right now.
His game is, of course, superior enough elsewhere that he could have a hot couple rounds putting and win. Or he could just have an A+ week with his A+ long game to make up for what the flatstick lacks.
McIlroy is getting older and wiser, too. As young as the game is trending, it won’t be long before he has more experience at Augusta than most of his competitors.
He’s also maturing. Rory will be married to Irondequoit native Erica Stoll before teeing it up at The Players this May. “It would have been nice to walk down the aisle in a green jacket,” he said. He thinks avoiding a blow up round was an example of that maturity. He may be right.
Next year will be McIlroy’s fourth shot at completing a career grand slam. None of the five who accomplished it needed more than three tries to get that last major.
Would I probably lose that bet against McIlroy? Yep. He seems simply too good not to run into a green jacket somewhere in the next 15 years.
But, I’d still make it.
Rory’s biggest problem at the Masters might be having to deal with Jordan Spieth his entire career.
Spieth’s streak of playing the final group on Sunday ended at three when he plunged all the way to the second to last group.
He’s played four Masters and is yet to know what it’s like to tee off before 2:30pm in the final round.
This year, he rallied from a Thursday quadruple-bogey to get within two of the lead after round three before simply no-showing on Sunday.
I’m a big believer in horses for courses and it seems like Spieth has the knowledge of a 15-year vet at Augusta National inside the body of a 23 year old superstar.
If it weren’t for a disaster at the 12th hole on Sunday, Spieth would have put the green jacket on himself last year. He was still 11th this year even after the disaster at 15 in round one and the worst round four of his short career.
I have to think maturity and experience will only make Spieth more dangerous.
I’m not sure if Spieth is a serious challenger to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins, but I think he’s got a great look to match the Golder Bear’s six green jackets.