Sergio Garcia finally mastered his love/hate relationship with Augusta
In the modern parlance of social media, Sergio Garcia’s nearly 20-year relationship with Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament could best be summed up with the phrase “it’s complicated.”
“It’s obviously not my favorite, my most favorite place,” Garcia said in 2013 in the midst of his extended cold war with Augusta. “But you know, we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here. ... It’s easy to think about negative things on this course.”
That was not always the case – and it won’t ever be again now that Garcia has been parading around the world at everything from iconic sporting events to his wedding reception donning a green jacket for the past 12 months.
It was not a linear journey from wide-eyed teenage rookie to happily ever after. Over the course of two decades, when both the golf course and Garcia evolved, the Spaniard fought with demons at Augusta National – many of his own creation.
“Nothing wrong with Augusta,” Garcia said. “I think that the main thing that has improved is the way I’m looking at it the last probably two or three years.”
So how did Garcia go from being the guy who once said at Augusta “I don’t have the thing I need to have” to win majors to winning the 2017 Masters in a playoff duel with Justin Rose?
Most of it is a golf game that has consistently been elite since his father first taught him as child. But the final ingredient was a newfound positive attitude drawn out by his new wife, Angela Akins Garcia, who waged an all-out confidence campaign last April.
Thanks to that winning combination, Garcia will never again have to answer the mystery of why he couldn’t win the big one.
'DREAM COME TRUE'
It was love at first sight when Garcia first arrived at Augusta National as a can’t-miss 19-year-old amateur nicknamed “El Nino.”
“I loved it early on,” Garcia said. “I loved the way it played in ’99. It was great.”
Garcia's first impression of Augusta National was mostly colored by conversations with his Spanish golfing idols and two-time Masters winners, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. When he was growing up during the golden age of European dominance in the Masters that started with Seve’s first win a few months after Garcia was born (1980) and ended with Olazabal’s last the year Garcia first qualified to play (1999), television coverage of golf “wasn’t great” in Spain. He was too young to remember Ballesteros’ two wins (1980 and ’83) and constant contending for a decade. He doesn’t even remember watching Olazabal’s first win at the 1994 Masters.
He’d only seen the tournament a couple of times on television before he won the 1998 British Amateur to qualify.
“We decided that was going to be my last tournament as an amateur,” Garcia said. “Obviously I talked to Jose, I talked to Seve and all the people that were there. They said it’s unbelievable and amazing and so much hillier than you think or you can see on TV. So you get an idea but you get there and it’s like ... no, you can’t explain it. The atmosphere, the feel you get when you get to Augusta. How different it looks and all those things. It doesn’t matter what you say, you can’t really describe it.”
What he found in person obviously suited him. Garcia played his first two rounds with Tiger Woods, matching his opening score of even-par 72. Though he didn’t break par, his tie for 38th beat fellow amateurs Tom McKnight, Matt Kuchar and Trevor Immelman to become the first British Amateur winner to claim low amateur honors at Augusta.
He shared the Butler Cabin ceremony with Jose Maria Olazabal, still calling it “a dream come true, to be totally honest.”
FIRST SIGNS OF TROUBLE
Garcia left Augusta in 1999 believing it was the beginning of a great relationship with the Masters.
“For sure, I remember talking to my dad after ’99,” he recalled. “I said I feel like we’re definitely going to win here. I was probably thinking more than once.”
His first flirtation with contending came in 2002 when he shot three consecutive rounds under par to sit inside the top four every day before finishing eighth with a Sunday 75. He started off in second place again in 2003 before a Friday 78 dashed his chances.
The first sign that there were cracks forming in the Garcia-Masters relationship came in 2004 when he arrived in a bit of a mini-slump that had seen him slip from No. 4 in the world at the end of 2002 to No. 48 when he showed up at Augusta.
Lurking just outside the leaderboard the first three days, Garcia fired 31 on the second nine Sunday to shoot a day’s best 66 and vault into a fourth-place finish. He showed up in the interview room for the first time all week visibly irritated with the small gathering of media who came to talk to him while Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were still putting on a show down the stretch.
“You seem upset about something,” were the first words that greeted him, and he said “it’s been going on for awhile” and complained that “you guys” only pay attention to “a handful of players.”
“You guys but, that’s the way you guys are,” he said. “When we’re playing well, we’re the best, and even if we’re playing well and things are not going our way, you know, we can be shocking. So it’s nice to see how fair you guys are, and I just hope that you guys don’t come out now saying, oh, you know, he’s back, and this is the Sergio we know and all that.”
He went on to say he felt “like I played well enough to win. Unfortunately, I’m not going to,” and bemoaned “a lot of shots out there that I probably didn’t deserve.”
He admits now that he could be his own worst enemy at Augusta.
“You have to be on in so many ways to be able to win a tournament, to be able to win a major and to be able to win at Augusta – so many things have to go right not only in your golf game but in your head,” he said. “Unfortunately, I probably wanted it so much those next few years (after 1999) that I got really intense, really frustrated when I could see that I was there and didn’t cross the line a couple times. Until I kind of stepped back and said just enjoy it, just play, do your thing, be positive, accept what’s happening good and bad and just let it happen ... I probably wasn’t able to perform as well as I could there. As well as I should.”
That 2004 grousing was the start of a dark decade for Garcia at Augusta, as whatever love he originally had for the course and the tournament had turned into a palpable dislike.
Garcia broke par only twice in his next 18 Masters rounds from 2005-10, missing the cut three times and never finishing better than 38th.
He admits he wrestled with the changing nature of the course that had grown longer and tighter and softer than the one he first fell in love with in 1999.
“It felt like the essence of the Masters, to me, it kind of went away a little bit,” he said. “It went from what I fell in love with. Obviously I got a little frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, it was also my fault. I took everything too personal my way and feeling like nothing was really happening to me. Which obviously is not true. You get some bad breaks and you get some good ones. But I just struggled for some years to see the good ones I was getting.”
The same could be said for his personal life, which spiraled along with his golf in 2010, eventually prompting a 10-week leave of absence to get his head right, He fell as low as 85th in the world in the weeks before the 2011 Masters.
But with his game on the uptick, Garcia got off to a strong start at Augusta and climbed into third place on the leaderboard at 7-under par at the turn on Saturday playing with 2009 winner Angel Cabrera. Then it all went sour, going bogey-double-bogey on Nos. 10-12 en route to a back-nine 42 that derailed him. As Garcia slumped up the 18th fairway, Cabrera – who shot 67 to vault into second place and into the final Sunday pairing with Rory McIlroy – put his arm around Garcia’s shoulders and appeared to be giving him a pep talk.
“Just my head kind of went out on 9 and I just couldn’t recover,” Garcia said, admitting “unfortunately it’s easy to think about negative things on this course.”
'I'M NOT GOOD ENOUGH'
Years of frustration finally came to a head in the 2012 Masters.
Garcia started the third round in third place just a shot behind leaders Fred Couples and Jason Dufner, and all eyes were on him and McIlroy in a marquee Saturday pairing.
Things went off the rails from the start for both players. Garcia bogeyed three of the first four holes and was five over on the day before he and McIlroy each made their first birdies on No. 12 and sarcastically celebrated with a hug on the green. Garcia shot 75 and McIlroy 77 and both fell well out of contention.
After a nondescript post-round interview with the English-speaking media, the 32-year-old Spaniard told a different story to Spanish-speaking press.
“I’m not good enough ... I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said in an interview translated from Spanish. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
Asked if he meant in the Masters, he replied “in any major.”
“I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them,” he added. “I have no more options. I wasted my options.”
He didn’t back down a day later when asked about his comments.
“Do you think I lie when I talk?” he said. “Everything I say, I say it because I feel it. If I didn’t mean it, I couldn’t stand here and lie like a lot of the guys. If I felt like I could win, I would do it.”
What did he think he was missing? “Everything,” he said.
McIlroy, who handled his own Sunday meltdown quite differently a year earlier, understood where Garcia’s surrender statement was coming from.
“It was ugly stuff,” McIlroy recalls of that day. “It was just a bad day for both of us. We brought each other down, really. It happens.
“I wasn’t surprised by what he said afterwards. He’s an emotional guy. Everyone knows that. He had played badly, shot a poor score and he just let it out. Plus, he has always had a love-hate relationship with Augusta. And that was one of his ‘hate’ moments. I understood. I’ve thought those sorts of things at times, but I would never say them. But he wears his heart on his sleeve.”
Looking back, Garcia admits it was years of frustration coming out in a moment of self-loathing.
“It’s the way I felt at that exact time,” he said. “Maybe one of the questions they asked me triggered it. Obviously I wasn’t feeling great. It wasn’t the first time that I had a below average Saturday there when I was in contention. So I just said what I felt at that time.
“That doesn’t mean that when I left Augusta and went to play my next tournament I didn’t think differently. If I didn’t think that I could keep winning and putting myself in that situation I probably would have stopped playing golf. I am emotional and say what I feel and I’m very truthful all the time and sometimes people don’t like what I say. It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, and everybody has their own opinion. It’s what I felt at the time and in a way I just wanted to get it out and not keep it inside of me.”
'IT JUST FEELS DIFFERENT'
Whatever Garcia flushed out of his system that day seemed to work. A year later he returned to Augusta and shot a first-round 66 to share the Masters lead for the first time. He finished tied for eighth.
His relationship with the course has been on the mend ever since, with recent firmer setups on the longer course making him feel more like it’s 1999 again.
“I think it’s the kind of place that if you are trying to fight against it, it’s going to beat you down,” he said. “So you’ve just got to roll with it and realize that sometimes you’re going to get good breaks ... and sometimes you’re going to get not‑so‑good breaks. But at the end of the day, that’s part of the game.”
When Angela Akins, then a sports reporter at a local Texas station, heard Garcia’s “not good enough” comments, she reached her own conclusion from afar.
“I thought he was wrong,” she said.
A collegiate golfer at Texas herself who can hold her own in friendly matches with the man she married in July, Angela devoted herself to improving Garcia’s attitude at Augusta.
“I think in some ways he got around that because it had nothing to do with the golf course, it had to do with him,” said Marty Akins, Garcia’s father-in-law. “Angela was able to impart that on him. It had nothing to do with Augusta. It had to do with your mind.”
It came as no shock to Angela when his long-awaited major breakthrough happened last April in a playoff win over Justin Rose.
“I personally have always thought that golf course was a great fit for Sergio,” she said. “After he won I heard people say, ‘it’s a little bit of a surprise that he won after the comments he made.’ I wasn’t surprised at all because of what that golf course demands from the player. I think it’s a phenomenal fit for Sergio.”
Garcia’s appreciation for the Masters has soared and there’s only love remaining for Augusta National now that he’s a member of its most exclusive club.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience to be able to travel with the green jacket all around the world,” he said. “It’s obviously a tremendous honor and you realize it even more after you win it. When you’ve played it enough, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play the Masters 19 or 20 times, you see it and kind of have an idea how big it is. But once you win it and you get to travel with the jacket and you see the reaction on the people all over the place – in Spain, in Germany, in Australia, in Hong Kong and Asia – you see the reaction from them and realize how much bigger it is than you first think. You have to understand how big an honor that is and you have to be respectful of it.”
He looks forward to returning for the Masters, wearing the green jacket as he mingles with the kids during the Drive, Chip and Putt competition and joining Olazabal in the Champions Locker Room. In some ways it will be as incomprehensible as that first feeling he had when he first arrived in 1999.
“I’ve talked to Jose Maria and he told me when you get there and you go through the gates and drive down Magnolia Lane as a Masters champion, you’ll see,” Garcia said. “He couldn’t explain the feeling. He said you’ll see it just feels different. To walk around the grounds at Augusta and wearing the jacket and being seen as a Masters champion and everything, it’s just so different.”
When he stands up to greet his peers at the Champions Dinner, his words will be a lot different than they were in 2012 when he thought he’d never get there.
“I’m not going to write anything,” he said. “I’m just going to say it from the heart because I think that’s the way I am.”