AUSTIN, Texas — Sergio Garcia insisted he didn’t feel any different as he sat at in the interview room wearing his green jacket while trying to explain how he finally got it after 18 years of pursuit.
“I’m still the same guy,” he said. “I’m still the same goofy guy, so that’s not going to change.”
That’s not the analysis that was unfolding in the clubhouse, where the members were gathering for the traditional victory party Augusta National throws for the newly minted Masters champion and his entourage.
Marty and Pamela Akins – parents of Garcia’s fiancee, Angela – were sitting at a table catching their breath after a long emotional day. One after another, members and their spouses kept approaching them, all saying a variation of the exact same thing.
“They said this is the most incredible transformation that they’d seen,” Marty Akins said. “People just poured over to us and told us how different Sergio was. I told Pamela they all had seen what we’d seen. It was like a miracle to a lot of them.”
The difference that they and every other golf fan saw that Sunday had nothing to do with golf. Garcia at age 37 is as gifted and skilled a golfer as he was when he first came to Augusta at age 19. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, calls Garcia “the best ball-striker in the world for the last 20 years.”
“All of the guys of my generation who have played a lot with Sergio would acknowledge that fact,” Ogilvy told Golf Digest’s John Huggan. “No one has been more consistent than Sergio. Nobody. ... I’ve seen guys hit it better than Sergio. But I’ve never seen anyone so good for so long.”
All of that skill is a testament to Garcia and his father, Victor Sr., who has been the only teacher the Spaniard has ever known.
But what was different about Garcia that Sunday – what enabled him to avoid another collapse when adversity and bogeys started piling up around Amen Corner – came from another source. It came from three generations of Texas sporting aristocracy delivered by the woman he loved.
“I think when you put Sergio and Angela together you’ve got a winning combination,” said Marty Akins of the couple who got married in July. “I know Sergio was a great golfer before he met Angela. I know he did outstanding things before he met Angela. He’s won all over the world. But I was able to notice that something happened to him and he changed in a way that we measure.”
Garcia doesn’t argue the point considering the ultimate measure is a major championship.
“It’s true,” he said. “She’s been an amazing influence.”
Akins first met Garcia in 2015 at the Houston Open in her role as a Golf Channel reporter, asking him a few questions after his pro-am round.
“He was very, very nice,” she said. “I was so busy trying to do my job and I’d just started at the Golf Channel four months before that. Honestly I didn’t think anything of it. I just remember Sergio always being one of the nicest guys, not just to me but all of the media.”
That was the extent of their relationship for months, occasionally running into each other at tournaments and exchanging pleasantries. By the end of the year, Garcia started asking Akins out. When they started officially dating in 2016, she resigned from Golf Channel.
AUDIO: Angela Akins talks about how they met
Garcia had found a kindred spirit who gets him.
“For me it helps because I could see that she can understand me a little bit better than some other people might,” Garcia said. “It made things a little bit easier to deal with.”
It’s constructive to understand how Angela Akins Garcia grew up.
Her grandfather, Ray Akins, was a Hall of Fame high school coach in Texas who won 302 games in 37 seasons under the Friday night lights.
Her father, Marty, was an All-American quarterback at the University of Texas, establishing rushing records running the wishbone offense in the mid-1970s that weren’t surpassed until Vince Young came along 30 years later. He preceded his father into the Texas high school football Hall of Fame.
Her first cousin is Drew Brees, the former Purdue All-American quarterback who led the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl win and is less than 1,500 yards from becoming the NFL’s career passing leader. His induction in the Texas high school football Hall of Fame in 2011 made them the first family with three generations enshrined.
“We are all highly competitive no matter what we do in this family,” said Pam Akins. “I think Sergio really likes that and fit right in.”
Angela was a stellar athlete at track, basketball and golf, eventually getting a scholarship to join the Texas women’s golf team.
“We always taught her to expect to win,” her father said. “There’s a saying in our family that what you think and what you believe is who you are. My dad used to say that all the time. So if you think you’re the best and believe you’re the best, you’re going to be the best. If you think you’re going to win and believe you’re going to win, you’re going towin. She’s grown up with that her whole life.”
Garcia quickly grew close to Angela’s father and grandfather. Ray Akins died the day after Christmas at age 92.
“If he was talking to you, he would be subtly coaching you and teaching you something,” Pam Akins said of her father-in-law. “I think between Marty and his dad, their philosophy has had an impact on Sergio.”
Those lessons are absorbed every day with Angela in Garcia’s life.
“I think my father and grandfather have had a positive influence on Sergio,” Angela said. “I get my competitive spirit and my drive and my confidence from them, and so I think they passed that on to Sergio a little bit.”
Said her father: “I just see a different kind of guy when Angela’s with him. Pam and I take no credit for any of it. She was just brought up that way. She expects to win just like all the Akins clan expects to win.”
Athletes pay a lot of money to sports psychologists in hopes that planting the right thoughts will be the difference in winning.
Garcia has worked with sports psychologists before, but he got engaged to a veritable Norman Vincent Peale in the positive thinking department. Akins conducted a 24-7 intervention during Masters Week that Bob Rotella could never pull off.
AUDIO: The couple talk about the letter-writing campaign
“There was something about that week that felt right and felt like something I wanted to do,” she said.
It started weeks in advance with a letter-writing campaign. Akins solicited all the people closest to Garcia – family and friends, including Jose Maria Olazabal – to write him personal notes with only two directives.
“I said write whatever you want to Sergio but maybe include why you love him and why you know he can win this tournament,” she said.
The letters came pouring in the weeks leading up to the Masters, many via email.
“Then my mom and I rewrote them in different handwriting – like left-handed and stuff to look as if different people had written them,” Angela said. “The notes were incredible. I was crying reading them.”
The pile of letters greeted Garcia when he got to Augusta, and they had a powerful effect on him as he prepared for the tournament.
“They were extremely special,” he said. “They were proper notes – 10 or 15 pages, all of them. So many amazing things. Why they love me and why they believed I could win. So many encouraging words.”
Olazabal’s note included a plea that Garcia said “touched my heart.”
“I’m not sharing my locker at the moment, and I hope that I get to do it with you,” Olazabal wrote of his place in the champions locker room at Augusta.
Phase II of Angela’s plan was to fill the bathroom mirror with green Post-it notes so that he would wake up every morning to affirmations from numerous sources including Buddha, Nelson Mandela and Teddy Roosevelt.
“Short little phrases from important people and some of her own,” Garcia said. “It was really nice to wake up and be brushing your teeth and see ‘You’re the best’ and ‘Don’t forget to be amazing!’”
“Something in talking with Angela about how great he was and he was going to win that tournament, he believed it,” Marty Akins said.
Angela smiled at Garcia’s retelling.
“I’ve just tried to be there for him every step of the way and remind him often just how great he is,” she said.
All of those lessons and affirmations took hold when Garcia needed it most during Sunday’s final round. The tournament had basically boiled down to Garcia vs. Justin Rose in the final pairing as they turned to the second nine tied for the lead and a few shots clear of anyone else.
Then Garcia made bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11 to fall two behind. When his drive on No. 13 clipped a tree branch and caromed into an azalea bush on the wrong side of the tributary to Rae’s Creek, a bleak familiarity settled in.
“I just think that maybe in the old days Sergio might have thought that bad luck had jumped on his back,” Marty said. “All the adversity and the defeat that was staring him in the face, he may not have been able to overcome that.”
Instead of cursing his luck, Garcia took it in stride and moved forward with a new purpose. He took a penalty drop in the pine straw, punched out into the fairway, wedged it to 7 feet and drained the putt to save par and remain only two behind Rose.
“I kept believing in myself and kept telling myself it’s your time and you’re playing great,” he said. “The way you’re playing you can make something happen so let’s keep at it. It was as simple as that. Sometimes we seem to overthink things. A lot of times just the simplest thought is all you need. Just keep believing.”
Akins felt the same way outside the ropes.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions,” she said. “I remember thinking at 10 and 11, ‘This isn’t over.’ I never once doubted Sergio. I never once lost the confidence he was going to win that day. I don’t know where that came from, but I had that confidence the entire time.”
His own confidence sparked anew with the par save, he hit two perfect shots to set up birdie on No. 14 – the hole formerly known as Spanish Dagger. After he hit his approach to 4 feet, he looked left and spotted Angela outside the ropes.
AUDIO: Angela talks about seeing Sergio on No. 14 and his eagle on No. 15
“Somehow he turned and looked right at me in this sea of people,” she said. “We gave each other fist pumps.”
THE 'TRUE' SERGIO
For only the second time in his career, Garcia stood over a putt to win a major on the last hole of regulation. Like his attempt at Carnoustie in 2007 that lipped out, his 5-footer for birdie at Augusta never took the break and stayed out of the hole.
Garcia, however, remained positive with another assist from his fiancee as he walked off the back of the green to go sign his scorecard.
“She could have given me a hug and said, ‘It’s okay, baby, don’t worry, you’ll get it,’” he said in a consoling tone. “It’s more of a negative embrace. Instead of that she just gave me a low five, looked at me and said ‘You’ve got this.’ I was like, yeah, perfect. I kept going with a good attitude.”
That was the instinct of Angela’s athletic upbringing.
“Anyone who knows athletes, it’s so important to have the right thoughts in your head,” she said. “I never say anything that’s going to put a thought in his head that I don’t think is going to be helpful. So after he missed the putt I just said to him, ‘You fought your way back; you’ve got this.’ That’s what came to my mind and I thought would be the most helpful for him to hear.”
AUDIO: Angela talks about encouraging Sergio before the playoff
While Rose struggled to a bogey on the first hole of sudden death, Garcia painted a perfect drive, solid approach and curled in a 12-footer for birdie to win. All of his frustrations that had been bottled up for 18 years came out in a primal scream as he crouched in celebration.
“A lot of things Sergio was able to accomplish that day were pretty miraculous,” said Marty Akins. “I think Angela has had a tremendous impact on Sergio.”
Garcia said that in that winning moment, all of the people who helped him along the way came flooding out in his emotional display – his parents and management team who have been with him every step of his career and his new family that brought his life a new level of fulfillment.
“She’s an unbelievable woman, very driven and very competitive,” he said. “So she’s always pushing me to become better not only as a player but as a person. It is a team effort, not only Angela and myself. Our whole families and managers and everybody that we work with try to help us out to make us better. With those things coming together it helped me obviously to see things a little differently at Augusta last year.”
Angela is flattered that some people give her a little bit of credit for assisting Garcia’s long-awaited breakthrough, but she knew he had it in him all along.
“We’re so new to the Sergio team and there were a lot of things going right for Sergio way before any of us ever met him,” she said. “His dad has done a phenomenal job coaching him his whole life and obviously his mom and dad have been there for everything and he’s had the same managers for many, many years. I just think that now just one more piece of the puzzle has been added and it’s the piece that has brought it all together.”
While folks watching Garcia tame his demons to finally win the Masters might believe they saw a changed man, all they really saw was a more complete version of the same old Sergio.
“Sergio’s not a different person,” his wife said. “I think what people are seeing now when they watch Sergio play golf, whether at a tournament or watching on TV, is they’re seeing Sergio’s true personality. The Sergio you also get off the golf course, which is the Sergio I fell in love with – this happy, lighthearted, funny guy who just attracts people and makes them want to be around him.
“I think that true personality has come out on the golf course and that has helped him be so successful in the last few years. He’s worked really, really hard.”