AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You might think golf fans show up at a tournament waiting for the 20-car pileup, waiting to feel better about their own swings, maybe their own lives, when some tormented soul relives Greg Norman's worst nightmare on the back nine. But the Masters has always been about the career-making recovery, not the heartbreaking crash, which is why Sergio Garcia felt like he was playing his home course near the east coast of Spain.
The Augusta National crowd was trying to will him home Sunday to end his biblical, 0-for-73 drought in the majors, as much as the 2004 crowd successfully tried to will home Phil Mickelson to end his 0-for-46. This was clear on the first and only hole of Garcia's playoff with Justin Rose, right after Garcia followed Rose's Scott Norwood (wide right for the win) on the 72nd hole with his own Scott Norwood from point-blank range.
On the 18th tee to start this sudden-death duel between good Ryder Cup bros, Garcia winked at Rose's caddie before the 2013 U.S. Open champ settled over his ball and blinked, sending his drive into the trees. Garcia then stepped into the box, stared down that famous Augusta National alley that looks tighter than an MRI tube and slammed his ball into the fairway. The fans went wild, and as the 37-year-old Spaniard headed off and up the hill, they cheered and chanted for him so passionately you would've thought he'd been raised in Augusta proper.
Or maybe you would've thought Garcia's favorite football team, Real Madrid, had just scored the deciding goal in the Champions League final. You couldn't hear a single man, woman or child calling Rose's name or shouting encouragement his way. The people didn't want another Greek (or Spanish) tragedy for Garcia. They wanted a human story of redemption, always the best available angle on the board.
Garcia gave them exactly what they asked for, times 50. He hit the green in 2 before Rose hit it in 3. Then, after the Englishman missed his par attempt, Garcia dismissed the angels on his right shoulder advising him to lag putt his way to victory and succumbed to the devilish ones on his left who ordered him to make the 12-footer in swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros style, on what would've been Seve's 60th birthday.
Garcia drained it, of course he did, and then he doubled over and let out a primal scream that rose from his toes. He hugged Rose and his own caddie, Glen Murray, and blew a kiss to the fans before kneeling down and touching the green. He fell into the arms of his fiancée, Angela Akins.
"You did it," she told the man she's about to marry.
"I did it," Garcia confirmed.
Soon enough, near the back of the clubhouse, Garcia's father, Victor Garcia, and some fellow countrymen were seen running about and shouting deliriously. "Vamos ...vamos," Victor cried. He was throwing his head back and his hands toward the darkening sky.
Victor had grown up a caddy. As much as Sergio was raised on the dream of playing the Masters, his old man was raised on the dream of carrying a contender's bag at the Masters. Victor taught his boy the game at the Club de Golf del Mediterraneo, where Victor's wife, Consuelo, helped run the pro shop. As a young child, Sergio used a broom and a feather duster in copying his father's swing. He grew into a teenage prodigy, El Nino, and he said hello to America with that closed-eye shot from behind a tree at Medinah at age 19, when he did a Pete Townshend scissor kick while chasing the ball's magical flight.
Sergio Garcia lost that PGA Championship to Tiger Woods, but we all thought he'd win five or six majors, maybe even 10. We all thought wrong.
Instead of establishing himself as Tiger's defining rival, Sergio established himself as a spoiled, immature brat. He would throw and kick one of his shoes after a bad shot, and upbraid a rules official, and spit into the cup, and act like an ass at the Ryder Cup, and accuse USGA officials at the 2002 U.S. Open of granting favored-nations status to Woods. Garcia would blame his crushing 2007 Open Championship loss at Carnoustie on everyone but the man in his own bathroom mirror, and he would make a racially offensive remark at a function while joking about Woods. Garcia made so many unforced errors on and off the course, it was hard to keep track of the whens and wheres.
Five years ago, when he announced himself unqualified to win a major, Garcia made it clear he detested Augusta National about as much as Lee Trevino once did. But Sergio kept coming back for more and more punishment, finally maturing along the way. Akins came into his life. Her dad was a star quarterback at Texas, and her cousin is Drew Brees. Who knows how much Akins helped her fiancée win golf's Super Bowl, but this much is clear:
She sure didn't hurt.
So there was her man on the back nine Sunday, the stubble stretching across the face showing more salt than pepper as he made a mess of the 10th and 11th holes and appeared to be taking measurements for Rose's green jacket. Things looked bad, really bad, when Garcia pulled his drive at No. 13 into a bush, took an unplayable and set all social-media forums ablaze with speculation he made his ball move while clearing away some pine straw. Garcia, who held a 3-stroke lead over Rose after five holes, stood 2 shots off the Englishman's lead and very much on the doorstep of 0-for-74.
He wasn't penalized. He wasn't rattled. Garcia made one of the great pars of his life, and then one of the great approach shots of his life at the 14th. He tied Rose at No. 15 with an 8-iron from 189 yards that hit the stick and then with a drained eagle putt that pretty much told everyone watching that for once, Garcia would not allow himself to lose.
"In the past," he'd say about the drive at 13 that hit a tree, "I would have started going at my caddie, 'Oh, you know, why doesn't it go through and whatever?' I was like, 'Well, if that was supposed to happen, let it happen. Let's try to make a great five here and see if we can put a hell of a finish to have a chance. If not, we'll shake Justin's hand and congratulate him for winning.'"
If Garcia-Rose wasn't exactly Watson-Nicklaus at Turnberry, or even Stenson-Mickelson at Troon, it was close enough. After they hit their tee shots tight at No. 16, Garcia, walking ahead of Rose, reached behind his back and gave his friend a low-five. Rose made his birdie, and Sergio missed, but after the Englishman failed to get up-and-down out of the bunker at the 17th, the fans around the 18th green roared when his bogey was posted on the leaderboard.
They didn't want Rose to win. Nothing personal, just business. The business of rooting for a golfer many American fans had loathed and squabbled with over the years. At Bethpage in 2002, when New Yorkers counted his waggles out loud, Garcia flipped one the bird. Two years earlier, after a Buick Classic fan enraged him by telling him not to choke, Garcia hooked his drive and blew the tournament and rattled on afterward about the annoying things people were shouting into his ear.
Asked about his turbulent relationship over the years with the American golf fan, Garcia spoke of "those unfortunate drunk guys that start saying things that shouldn't be said on a golf course." But he described Augusta National's fans, year after year, as "amazing."
Just never quite as amazing as they were Sunday, when Garcia did what Greg Norman could not: He conquered all of his Augusta National demons and doubts.
"The problem is where my head was at sometimes," Garcia admitted. "I did think about, 'Am I ever going to win one?'"
And when he won this epic battle with Rose, his father all but danced around the course. Funny, but before speaking with ESPN.com on Saturday, a hobbling Victor sat on a bench outside the pro shop and had a friend work on what appeared to be a bum ankle.
Yes, winning cures everything.
"I couldn't ask for anything more than winning the Masters," Victor said. "It's the best thing ever."
So no boozed-up fan was heard announcing on Sunday night that he had the same number of major victories as Victor's son had. In the gathering darkness, under a rising moon, Sergio smiled proudly as a million flashbulbs bounced off his shiny, green jacket.
He would chide his younger, sillier self for "trying to fight against something you can't fight" at Augusta National and beyond. He would say he was as calm in this final round as he's ever been, even though the right-to-left course still doesn't quite fit his eye.
In the end, Garcia said, this triumph was "definitely a demonstration of my character and my mentality." It was also a demonstration of just how much golf fans prefer a great, redemptive story over just another horror show.
Nothing bothered the new and improved Garcia this week -- not the second-round scoreboard follies or the fourth-round misadventures that cost him the lead, and certainly not the fans.
"I felt like I was back in Spain," Garcia said during his jacket ceremony.
He felt like he was back in his hometown of Borriol, Spain, back on his father's course in a valley by the sea. Once upon a time, young Sergio Garcia envisioned himself winning the Masters. As it turned out, the grownup reality was far better than the boyhood dream.