Rafa Cabrera Bello, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal
Voices

The curse of the World Golf Championships on Spanish golfers is now 20 years old and very, very real

February 20, 2019

I was there in 2014, in Akron, Ohio, watching the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. This was dead in the chronological middle of Rory McIlroy’s last stretch of true dominance, between victories at the Open Championship at Hoylake and the PGA at Valhalla, but the star of the Bridgestone until Sunday afternoon had been Sergio Garcia.

On Friday, Garcia put together the putting performance of the season, finishing his round with 11 straight one-putts and tying the course record at 61. Heading into Sunday, he held a three-shot lead on Rory. After eating lunch with his opponent and chattering nervously on the range with anyone who would listen, the then 34-year-old teed it up, nodded to the fans and blew the lead in three holes. When he chunked his approach on the second hole, David Feherty couldn’t resist a private quip to a nearby journalist: “Is it fair to say that if he hit it any farther behind it, he’d have to add it to yesterday’s score?” On the third hole, his errant shot knocked the diamond ring off a woman’s hand, and it took a search party to find it. When he made bogey on the green, he had lost lead, and he’d never get it back.

That day, I thought I witnessed one great player with a penchant for the dramatic collapse, and another in the midst of an historic heater. I also thoughtI witnessed a conclusion that hewed pretty close to emotional and psychological expectations. What I didn’t realize—what, in fact, I only came to understand this week—was that I had also witnessed an ongoing national curse that is now approaching its 20th anniversary.

• • •

Spain has a rich golf history matched by very few countries, and I wrote last year about how Spanish golfers have collectively been the most successful Ryder Cup warriors in history—better even than the Americans. From Seve Ballesteros to Jose Maria Olazabal to Miguel Angel Jimenez to Garcia, the nation has churned out legends and major champions, and the record is particularly impressive when you consider that golf is far less prominent in Spain than in the other long-established powers. Their tradition is a proud one, and it stands if not toe-to-toe, than at least on the same exalted turf with the juggernauts of the sport.

With one exception: the World Golf Championships. There have been 76 WGC events since the first Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship in 1999, and in that time, there have been exactly zero Spanish winners. Even considering representation and sample size, this is a surprising anomaly. The list of nations that has produced at least one winner in that time includes the obvious titans—America, England, Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Ireland—but also plenty of relative minnows, from Wales to Canada to Germany to Italy to Scotland (save your rage, Caledonians … in terms of modern pros, yes, Scotland is a minnow) to Fiji to Sweden to Japan. Many of those nations have produced fewer major champions than Spain, and one, Japan, has never produced one at all.

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So, as you see, Spain’s absence is anomalous. But anomalies do not curses make—for that, only the most agonizing anecdotal evidence will suffice. So let me take you now to the third WGC ever contested (then the “American Express Championship,” currently this week’s Mexico Championship), played on Spanish soil at historic Valderrama in 1999.

PGA TOUR Photo Services

Jimenez was hoping to do his country proud at Valderrama in 1999, but fell to Tiger in a playoff.

There, Jimenez—who grew up an hour away in Malaga—battled in front of a “wildly partisan Spanish gallery” on a windy Sunday when the Spanish Civil Guard had to be mobilized to keep the fans from the players. El Mecanico was tied for the lead heading into the final round, and played one of just six sub-par scores on that difficult afternoon. Unfortunately for him, one of the others belonged to Tiger Woods, who played so well that when he came to No. 17, he appeared to have the victory in the bag. Then he made a triple bogey that he blamed on Seve Ballesteros’ difficult design, the crowd cheered in a way that infuriated him and, minutes later, with Woods in the clubhouse, Jimenez came to the 72nd hole leading by one. The AP’s Stephen Wade narrated what happened next:

“But he took a bogey 5 on 18 when he drove into slight trouble on the left, punched a shot short of the green and then landed his approach 25 feet long. His shot at winning was a near-perfect chip that lipped out and left him a tap-in for the playoff.”

“Jimenez, supported by cheering fans only 60 miles from his home in Malaga, broke down in tears after the playoff loss …”

That lip-out and the ensuing loss to Tiger’s playoff birdie—the GOAT gave “a quick fist-pump for the few people seemingly on his side, a cold-eyed stare for everybody else”—in the very first year of the World Golf Championships, in the heart of Spain, set the tone for everything to come. Perhaps we should call it “The Curse of El Mecanico” or “The Curse of Valderrama.” In any case, it has now persisted for 20 years. You’ve already heard about Sergio and Rory, but let’s take a tour through the most crushing defeats …

1999: Olazabal advances to the quarterfinals of the first WGC ever, the match play in Carlsbad, before losing, 2 and 1, to John Huston. No Spanish golfer will go further until 2010. At the second event, the NEC Invitational in Akron (now the Bridgestone), Sergio finishes the first round of this stroke-play event one shot off the lead, then spends the next three days fading down the leader board, eventually losing to Tiger Woods. That exact story—Sergio starts hot, loses to Tiger—happens again at this event in 2005. It also happens at the precursor to the WGC-Mexico Championship in 2003 … and 2005 … and 2007 … and 2013.

Craig Jones

Woods got the best of Garcia at the 1999 WGC-NEC Invitational, a result that repeated itself several times after.

2004: At the World Cup, a two-man team event that predated the World Golf Championships and continues to this day but was only an official WGC event from 2000 to 2006, Garcia and Jimenez hold the lead coming into the final round and arrive at the 16th hole with every chance to take home the title. It does not end well:

“Spain hit back with an eagle at the 13th, but Garcia fatefully went into the water with a risky second to the par-5 16th putting the Spaniards three back. Even so Casey’s grit on the greens was called upon as he needed to sink a three-footer at the last to clinch the win with a bogey five after Spain had birdied.”

2010: Sergio—again, Sergio—becomes the first Spanish golfer to make the semifinals in the WGC-Match Play. There, he meets fellow Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter and gets demolished, 7 and 6.

2012: Rafa Cabrera Bello starts the WGC-Invitational with a 66-65, and then, inheriting the curse from his elders, shoots 77 on Saturday.

2016: Bello becomes just the second Spaniard to reach the Match Play semifinals, but doesn’t fare much better than Sergio in 2010, losing 4 and 3 to Louis Oosthuizen. Unlike Sergio, he wins the third-place match, defeating Rory, 3 and 2, to secure Spain’s best finish at the event.

2017: Jon Rahm falls just two shots shy of Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Mexico, and as if inspired by that performance and by Bello’s match-play run the year before, he storms all the way to the Match Play finals a few months later at Austin Country Club, crushing his competition (including Sergio) along the way. In the championship match, he meets DJ yet again. For the second time in Spain’s long and agonizing WGC history—and for the first time in years—one of its golfers was within a hole of taking the title. But Rahm could not complete a late comeback, and Johnson secures the 1-up win with par on 18.

David Cannon/Getty Images

Rahm fell victim to Dustin Johnson in the final of the 2017 WGC-Match Play shortly after losing to DJ at the WGC-Mexico.

It may seem like I’m mentioning the same names time and again, but Spain’s WGC roster of “nearly men” goes deep. Alvaro Quiros threatened twice at the WGC-Championship in 2009 and 2010. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano lost the World Cup with Jimenez by three strokes in 2006 and made waves at the HSBC Champions in 2009. Pablo Larrazabal poked his head out at the 2011 Invitational, Olazabal had chances to reach the Final Four at the Match Play in 2002 and threatened at the 2005 Invitational, and Rafa Bello came into last year’s final round of the WGC-Mexico two off the lead and finished just one shot off the Mickelson-Thomas playoff.

Spain’s losses have happened in every way imaginable: 72nd-hole lip-outs, narrow match-play duels, collapses, slow fades and Sunday charges that fell just short. They have ended in anguish and tears. This Sunday, Feb. 24, will mark the 20th anniversary of the first day of WGC play. It will also be the final round in Mexico, where four Spanish golfers—Sergio, Rahm, Bello and Adrian Otaegui—will have a chance to bring the curse to an end exactly two decades after it began.

Whether they succeed or fail, I will think of Spain’s national motto: Plus ultra. The Latin phrase means “further beyond,” and embodies a philosophy of risk-taking and adventure. But in this case, the Spanish fighters at Golf Club de Chapultepec will be seeking a definitive conclusion rather than some nebulous hereafter. Perpetuity, should it win the day, belongs only to the curse.

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