On an enthralling Sunday of typically draining drama on the back nine at Augusta National, two decorated European golfers essentially settled the 81st Masters in a down-the-stretch, match-play duel for the ages.
In the end, Spaniard Sergio Garcia prevailed over his friend and Ryder Cup teammate, Englishman Justin Rose, on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
This was a knock-down, drag-out, punch and counterpunch final round. Garcia opened an early three-shot lead, then stumbled with bogeys at 10 and 11 before rising from a near knockout unplayable lie at the 13th hole to save a miracle par. Rose actually lost ground with a birdie at the 15th after the Spaniard had drained a 12-foot eagle putt to take a one-shot lead, accompanied by a roar that must have shaken windows all over Georgia.
Both men missed relatively short putts at the 72nd hole to force the playoff — Rose from 10 feet, Garcia from six. It finally ended when Rose, a 36-year-old former U.S. Open champion and gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics, hit a wayward tee shot into the trees on the right on the first extra hole, leading to an 18-foot par-saving putt that stayed out by inches.
Then again that miss hardly mattered. Garcia, 37, hit a perfect drive down the right side, stuffed his second shot to within 12 feet and then made that birdie putt. He crouched down for a moment with his head down, clearly savoring the precise moment when he had finally broken through for his first major championship of an otherwise respectable career, then hugged just about everyone in sight.
Rose and Garcia posted 3-under-par 69s in this memorable final round and completed 72 holes at 9-under 279. Garcia became only the third player from Spain to win a Masters, joining the late Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal with that distinction. That fact that he prevailed on what would have been Ballesteros’s 60th birthday also was not lost on Garcia.
“It did pop up in my mind a few times, no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m sure he helped me a little bit with some of those shots and putts. I’m thrilled to be standing here. It’s been an amazing week and I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of my life.”
Rose, as usual, was the perfect gentleman in defeat, telling reporters as he walked off the course that if he had to lose to anyone, it didn’t hurt quite as much knowing it was Garcia who beat him.
“We’ve played a lot of golf together since we were 14,” Rose said. “We’ve always had a good friendship, rivalry and camaraderie. He’s always been happy for me. It’s nice for him to have that monkey off his back. I’m very pleased for him.”
Garcia burst onto the international golfing scene as an exuberant 19-year-old who battled Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship, only to finish second. He’s had many other near misses in majors and came here after 73 major appearances without a victory.
When Garcia made that one last sudden-death birdie, several thousand spectators 10 deep around the green exulted along with him. They were fully aware of that futility in majors, and it didn’t take long for chants of “Sergio, Sergio” to serenade him as he hugged his American girlfriend Angela Atkins and high-fived friends and fellow competitors.
There was also some despair in other corners of the course. One local paper had a Sunday headline that read “history tells us Spieth will be the man to beat.” That was a reference to Jordan Spieth, who finished 2-1-2 in his first three Masters and was only two shots off the 54-hole lead. Paired with his friend, Rickie Fowler, only one behind, in the penultimate group in front of Garcia and Rose, the two young Americans were flat from the start and never contended.
Spieth posted a 75, matching his worst score in 16 Masters rounds and ended eight shots behind at 1-under 287. Fowler, also trying to win his first major, was equally mediocre, shooting 76 and also finished 1-under, tied for 11th.
“For a while there it was just, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Spieth said. “I wasn’t doing much wrong, and that’s what was so tough. I just looked up, and it just wasn’t landing where I thought it would. I didn’t feel one nerve out there. I felt as calm as I’ve ever felt. It was bizarre.”
While Spieth and Fowler floundered, several others flourished, even if they didn’t win.
South African Charl Schwartzel, the 2011champion, took solo third with a 68 and 282 total that included the last of his six birdies at 18. And American Matt Kuchar thrilled the gallery, and likely more millions watching at home, when his 7-iron at the 180-yard 16th hole hit the green 15 feet from the flag and funneled down a slope and into the cup.
He ended with a 67 and 283 total, tying him for fourth with Belgium’s Thomas Pieters (68). Kuchar seemed far more thrilled with the reaction that ace produced — what he described as “pandemonium on the tee box. It was such a thrill.”
Kuchar also endeared himself to parents around the planet when he signed the ball and walked over and handed it to a little boy in a straw hat.
“I’ve got enough hole-in-one balls, I don’t save them,” Kuchar said. “It’s one of the neat things we can do. There’s nothing like seeing a smile come across a kid’s face.”
Or the face of first-time Masters champion, as well.