Sergio Garcia sheds his snakebitten label
It’s the Saturday before Masters Week and Sergio Garcia is walking through tall grass in central Texas hunting for wild hogs.
Garcia is new to hunting, introduced to it in 2016 by his soon-to-be father-in-law, Marty Akins, on the family’s 1,250-acre ranch near Marble Falls, about an hour northwest of Austin. He’s wearing snake boots, carrying the .30-30 Winchester rifle and following in the precise footsteps of Akins through the grass. Sergio’s father, Victor, is following a few paces behind his son.
As Garcia is about to put his foot down, he sees something move and jumps back.
“Watch out big man – snake!” Garcia yelled, among other words he admits aren’t suitable for print.
“I looked down and I had my foot sort of on a rattlesnake,” Akins said. “So I jumped off him and he coiled up. Sergio had the gun so I said, ‘Shoot him!’”
Garcia balks, so Akins comes around, takes the gun and shoots the rattlesnake in half. Victor Garcia had already high-tailed it back to the cart and wasn’t getting out again.
“I would literally have put my foot probably 3 inches left of it,” Garcia said of the snake. “Obviously we were wearing snake boots and everything, but you never know. If I step on it and it bites me, maybe I’m not even playing in Augusta. So I guess it was just one of those things that was meant to be.”
AUDIO: Listen to Marty Akins talk about the snake encounter
For a player whose major championship fortunes have often been described – even by himself – as “snakebitten,” Garcia literally avoided it on the eve of his long-awaited breakthrough. He never bagged a hog that afternoon, but that adrenaline rush sent him to Augusta, where he exorcised all of the poisonous demons that had haunted him for nearly two decades with a newfound optimism.
“It was pretty funny to me,” Akins said, “that eight days after he almost stepped on that rattlesnake, he won the Masters.”
As can’t-miss kids embarking on pro careers go, Garcia was arguably the best bet to ever come along in the wake of Tiger Woods. There was nothing not to like about his game.
Sergio was practically born to be a golf superstar, very nearly arriving into the world in 1980 in the pro shop at Mediterraneo Golf Club where his mother, Consuelo, went into labor while she was running the register. His father, Victor Sr., was the club’s pro in the town of Borriol, not far from Spain’s eastern coast on the Mediterranean Sea.
Garcia was just 2 when he started mimicking his father’s swing with a feather duster.
“I’ve always loved sports, but I guess I was always drawn to golf a little bit more for various reasons even though I played tennis and soccer, too,” Garcia said. “With my dad being a professional and me being on the golf course, I was always a little more drawn to golf.”
In a family of golfers – his older brother, Victor Jr., and younger sister, Mar, each played college golf in the U.S. – Sergio excelled under his father’s tutelage. He’s still never had another coach for a swing that’s endured for three decades. By the time he was 12 he was breaking 70 and beating all the adults to win Mediterraneo’s club championship. The impressed membership and Spanish media dubbed him “El Niño” – The Kid.
In short order, El Niño’s reputation as a prodigy spread. He played with Spanish legend Seve Ballesteros for the first time at his home club when he was 14. At 15, he became the youngest player to make the cut in a European Tour event and then the youngest to win the European Amateur. He played in his first British Open at 16.
Garcia was already on the global map when he won the British Amateur in 1998 to earn a spot in the 1999 Masters, where as a bright 19-year-old he would be paired the first two rounds with Woods.
Garcia finished tied for 38th, the first British Amateur winner to earn Augusta’s sterling silver cup for low amateur. He shared the Butler Cabin ceremony with fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, who claimed his second green jacket.
“It was a dream come true to be totally honest ... to kind of look at my amateur career and think this couldn’t have finished in a better way,” he said. “Obviously, if you would have won the Masters it would be better, but realistically I was low amateur at Augusta first time I played, Jose Maria wins and we get to celebrate our victories together with one of my golfing idols. It was just amazing timing and obviously it kind of helped me even more as I turned pro the week after and gave me an extra boost of confidence.”
The growing legend of El Niño only accelerated after that. A month after the Masters in his first PGA Tour start as a pro at the Byron Nelson, Garcia shot 62 in his opening round to sit one stroke behind Woods’ course-record 61. By the end of the week, Garcia tied for third and earned about $50,000 more than Woods.
“He’s the next one,” Jerry Higginbotham, Mark O’Meara’s usual caddie, said when he carried Garcia’s bag that week.
“Believe me, he’s going to be successful,” said Woods.
Success came that July with his first pro win at the Irish Open – moving him permanently into the world’s top 100 for the next 18 years, 9 months and still counting – and a runner-up a week later in the Scottish Open. But just when you thought the teenager’s game was all grown up, he missed the cut the next week in the British Open at Carnoustie and was seen crying on his mother’s shoulder.
Before anyone had time to temper expectations, however, the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah seared the image of Garcia ebulliently nipping at Tiger’s heels. In the final round, Garcia was tracking down Woods when his drive on No. 16 came to rest at the base of an oak tree. Instead of carefully punching out, he closed his eyes and took a full whack at the ball between the roots. As his shot curved up the hill, Garcia skipped across the fairway after the ball and executed a leaping scissor kick to see it roll up onto the green.
Woods ultimately held off the challenge to win his second career major by one stroke over the kid, but the narrative had been established. Not only would Sergio be the next great Spanish star, but he would also be Europe’s answer to rival Tiger.
“I embraced it for sure,” Garcia said of the “El Niño” hype. “I think it was great fun. I enjoyed it. Yeah, maybe it was a little extra pressure on but it’s fine. I was also putting extra pressure on myself to try to do well every week.”
Garcia became one of golf’s most recognizable global superstars. He followed in the footsteps of Ballesteros and Olazabal by winning in Europe, Asia and on the PGA Tour. He was still a teenager when he qualified for his first Ryder Cup in 1999 and became a fixture during much of the European team’s success over the next two decades.
His good looks, passion and charisma held a magnetism much like Ballesteros. His moments of petulance and fits of pique drew heaps of criticism as well.
“I’m Spanish, we are very emotional and it is good,” he said. “I’d rather be like that and not be a robot. I can’t live my life like that, forget about golf, like a flat line.”
The standard his Spanish predecessors set came at the Masters and British Open, and that was a legacy Garcia was expected to carry on. His relatively routine leaderboard appearances in every brand of major proved he was capable, amassing 22 top-10s, 12 top-fives and four runner-ups in majors as the mileage steadily accumulated.
Every time Garcia would put himself in position to win a major, an alternative ending kept cropping up. Three times he got aced out on Sundays by Woods, who piled up 14 major wins in an 11-year span that largely coincided with Garcia’s most aggressive opportunities.
“I do have to say, all of us, we did probably run into if not the greatest player ever, one of them,” Garcia said of Woods. “That makes things a little bit tougher. But I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good thing and kind of pushed all of us to work harder and become better golfers. It was one of those mixed things. If he had not been there, would I have had more chances of winning other majors? For sure. At the same time, it would have made all of us maybe not as good golfers as we are now.”
At the 2007 British and ’08 PGA Championship, Garcia also finished second to Padraig Harrington, including a playoff defeat at Carnoustie after his putt to win on the 72nd hole lipped out.
His near-misses often brought out his worst emotional tendencies. He speculated that Woods and “bigger guys” got favoritism in weather rulings and received ridicule from the galleries when he was hounded for a re-gripping tic that emerged during the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Other forces conspired to disrupt his chances in 2007 at Carnoustie, including a bunker-raking crew delaying his final approach in regulation and his ball bouncing long off a pin in the playoff.
“I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot 1-over,” he groused after the playoff loss to Harrington, adding that he was playing against “more than the field.”
“It’s the way it is. I guess it’s not news in my life.”
Garcia wore the label of "best player to never win a major" like a yoke until he finally broke after another familiar Saturday letdown at the Masters in 2012.
“I don’t have the thing I need to have” to win majors, the 32-year-old Garcia said. “I’m not good enough. I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them. I have no more options. I wasted my options.”
Garcia admits his attitude did himself no favors in the majors.
“They’re all great learning experiences if you take them the right way,” he said of his many teachable moments. “The way I look at it, the seconds that I had, yeah, you lost it. But to have a chance of winning a major and be there on Sunday afternoon, there are so many good things that have to happen to get there. If you only look at the couple little negative things that didn’t help you win it, it kind of ruins the whole week.
“So it’s important to look at the things that could have gone better so you can improve them, but make sure that you look at the good things because you’ve done so many good things to put yourself in that situation. You have to give yourself credit for those, too.”
Carnoustie remains his hardest one to come to terms with before being able to press onward.
“I’m not going to lie, I remember the week after being in Spain with my family and going to the beach by myself and just walking and thinking and being a little bit down about it,” he said. “But after that I kind of started thinking why are you just thinking about all the bad things that happened and not all the good things you did to have a chance and put yourself in that situation. I kind of figured that out. I look back at it now and I think all of those experiences helped get me to where I am now.”
Despite his frustrated surrendering to his major fate at Augusta in 2012, Garcia never really gave up the quest. He illustrated that with his most optimistic major defeat in 2014 in the Open Championship at Hoylake.
On the same course where he got lapped in the final Sunday pairing with Woods in 2006, Garcia made a charge from seven strokes behind Rory McIlroy on Sunday to draw as close as two before leaving a shot in the bunker on the 15th hole to blunt his challenge and settle for joint runner-up.
“I enjoyed that British Open at Hoylake,” he said. “Shot on 15 comes to mind, but you never know. It was fun to at least make Rory sweat a little bit.
“The important thing was that I didn’t make (winning majors) a priority. Obviously I want to win a major, but it’s not the main thing. If I didn’t want to do that I wouldn’t practice. But if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK. I started to learn to deal with that and just keep doing what you’re doing and if you’re healthy you’re going to put yourself in that position many times again. Just wait for that day when you feel great and everything happens to you.”
Ending the drought
That day arrived last April just eight days after avoiding a snakebite in Texas.
All of the pieces that had kept Garcia from fulfilling his destiny had fallen into place. A player more prone to playing in tandem with his emotional biorhythms than most, he was in a happy place having gotten engaged at the start of 2017 and was planning a wedding for the summer. His form was in good order, winning the European Tour event in Dubai in February.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise that through 3½ rounds he found himself tied for the lead with one of his most familiar peers going back to their amateur days in Europe, Justin Rose.
"He’s always been a heart-on-sleeve guy," Rose said. "You know exactly what is going on with Sergio, rightly or wrongly. So he doesn’t hide things very well. Everyone talks about when he’s happy off the golf course he's one of the best in the world on the golf course."
As if on cue, however, the gremlins that had always derailed Garcia’s major aspirations convened in the vicinity of Amen Corner. On No. 10 – “not my most comfortable hole” – he made bogey to fall one back. On the 11th, his drive rolled through the fairway and he made another bogey and slipped two behind Rose.
After a sensible par at No. 12, his drive on the 13th was slightly left of his target line and clipped a pine branch, kicking the ball to the wrong side of the creek into an azalea bush.
Everyone had seen this script before.
“In the past he would have gotten so frustrated he would have just took himself right out of it,” said Marty Akins. “He didn’t do that this time.”
Instead, Garcia drew from all of the cruel lessons in his career and stayed focused on the positive.
“I was very calm ... much calmer than I’ve felt probably in any major championship on Sunday,” Garcia said. “So obviously Justin wasn’t making it easy; he was playing extremely well. But I knew what I was capable of doing, and I believed that I could do it.”
After taking a penalty and a drop, Garcia saved par with a clutch 8-footer and Rose subsequently missed his 5-footer for birdie to remain two up.
“That little two-shot swing there was kind of when he was back in the tournament,” Rose said. “If he misses at that point, I make, I’m four clear.”
With that momentum shift, the mood on the course changed. Patrons who sensed Garcia had been wilting again were trying to will him on.
"The thing that was different out there, I thought, was he had the whole crowd rooting for him," Rose said. "I think he’s probably felt the opposite at times. ... The crowd probably sensed that he was happy and more relaxed and they also thought this guy’s paid his dues. He’s had some tough crosses to bear and had some tough losses. This is Sergio’s time and let’s get behind it."
Garcia agreed: “I think they were supporting Justin a lot, too, but I think once it became just him and me, I definitely sensed that people were very excited for me to do well and hopefully win the green jacket."
The energy snowballed as Garcia birdied No. 14 and eagled the 15th to draw even with Rose. Then, despite missing a 5-footer to win in regulation, Garcia drained his birdie on the first playoff hole to shed his snakebitten past as the Augusta crowds chanted “Ser-Gee-O!”
“Sergio is obviously the best player not to have won a major, no longer,” Rose said. “It must be hard for guys when they are striving to win majors and they are seeing their peers pick them off and they are kind of being left behind. Any time one of those types of players – there’s a handful of them – gets that huge monkey off their back, I think it makes it a poignant major championship.”
Garcia seemed at peace as he wore his green jacket and faced the media after his emotional victory. There were no demons to curse, no misfortune to bemoan. After 18 years, Garcia had finally fulfilled his original destiny and not the looming alternative fate he had come to terms with after so many heartaches.
Garcia – a fan of the horror-movie genre – insists he never felt trapped in his own psychological thriller.
“Not in the least bit; not at all,” he said. “I have a beautiful life, major or no major. I said it many, many times. I have an amazing life. I have so many people that care for me and love me and support me. I feel so nicely surrounded. Obviously this is something I wanted to do for a long time but, you know, it never felt like a horror movie. It felt like a little bit of a drama maybe, but obviously with a happy ending.”
With the birth of his and Angela's first daughter in mid-March, the only rattle he was likely to encounter this time would be in gifts for his little girl.
He prefers the rush of a Sunday in contention between the Georgia pines to a serpent encounter in the tall grass of a Texas prairie.
“It’s a different kind of adrenaline,” he said. “One is excitement from having a chance to win a tournament that we love. The other one is kind of scared of what might happen.”
Garcia no longer needs to be scared of what might happen on a major championship Sunday. He rethinks about what happened after encountering that rattlesnake in the grass for a second, and smiles.
“If it means I’ll win another green jacket? We’ll see.”