The New Sergio
‘Evolved’ is not a word that had been associated with Sergio Garcia, but it was just such a golfer who won the Masters. After rallying in regulation before defeating Justin Rose in sudden death, the Spaniard was asked what he was more proud of, the character he’d demonstrated or his actual shots—which just happened to be the best of his life.
“Definitely the character,” Garcia said with quick conviction. Of course, after months of coming to a belated understanding of how one can cause the other, the green jacket he was wearing offered the final proof.
And now, with the heart of the golf season upon us, the question remains: Was Augusta an isolated sweet spot in time that will go down as the biggest achievement of a remarkable career, or something deeper and fundamental enough to make him a historic player?
If it’s the former, Garcia will fall under that intriguing and rare category of supremely gifted player whose lone masterpiece only intensified the prolonged tease of all his flawed majors. Someone like the embattled Tom Weiskopf, whose tour de force at Troon in 1973 contrasted cruelly with 11 other top-fives in majors, including five seconds. At the moment, Garcia has 12 other top-fives in majors, including four runner-up finishes (see chart below).
But if it’s the latter, Garcia will fulfill the destiny that seemed clear even before he scissor-kicked up the hill of Medinah’s 16th fairway at his first runner-up finish, the 1999 PGA Championship. Says sport psychologist Bob Rotella: “If Sergio’s actually learned how to put things behind him and just play, and it wasn’t just a one-week thing, he’s going to win a lot of tournaments.” Instructor David Leadbetter, who still remembers how the sound of the skinny 15-year-old’s shots caught his attention, says, “Now I would expect him to win two or three more majors.”
Historically, only two players in the modern era have ever compiled multiple majors after capturing the first at 37 or later: Angel Cabrera, who won the first of two at that age, and Mark O’Meara, who won two in 1998 at 41. Ben Hogan, who won nine majors, got his first at 34. Phil Mickelson, winner of five, was 33 when he broke through. Vijay Singh, Nick Price and Padraig Harrington, winners of three, were all 35.
Then again, in seemingly every way except for playing in pro events for more than two decades, Garcia is a young 37. No injuries, still nimbly athletic enough to play high-level tennis (including hit-arounds with good friend Rafael Nadal) and soccer (occasionally joining practices with the third-division hometown team CF Borriol, of which he is president). “If I stay healthy,” he says, “I think I can probably play at a good level for another 10 years.”
The increased maturity he demonstrated at the Masters notwithstanding, Garcia also remains a big kid—fond of children, pets like his Pomeranian puppy, Bear, and pranking his friends. Being, as his fiancee, Angela Akins, refers to him, “a goofball.”
“He has a very boyish streak to him,” says Luke Donald, who has been Garcia’s frequent partner in the Ryder Cup, in which Garcia—with a record of 18-9-5—needs only four more points to become the biennial matches’ all-time leader.
“He’s always cracking jokes that you would crack when you were maybe 12 years old,” Donald says. “At the Ryder Cup, he’ll be jumping up on the bed at 6 a.m. and yelling, ‘It’s Ryder Cup week! It’s Ryder Cup week!’ But it’s a quality that draws you to him as well.” Adds longtime European Tour impresario Chubby Chandler: “There’s something about Sergio—a playful energy—that will always stay 19.”
But that was Garcia’s age when he cried in his mother’s arms after shooting 89 in the opening round of the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Later that year at the World Match Play at Wentworth, Garcia threw his shoe in anger, and then kicked it when his manager retrieved it. By the time Garcia had spit in a cup on a Doral green in 2007, his image had been tainted by sour-grape remarks about his nemesis, Tiger Woods. Spanish journalists would sometimes privately corrupt the nickname of El Niño to “Muy Niño.” (Loose translation: Very much a little boy.)
“Growing up as this childhood prodigy, everything was sort of given to him, and some of that shaped the way he was,” says Donald, who remembers a dinner in 2010 in which Garcia spoke of quitting golf. “And when things didn’t go his way, then he kind of got a little bit in his own way. He seemed to feel he was the victim a lot. And was slightly childish at certain times. In a way, his ability made him slower to mature.”
The narrative tended to obscure Garcia’s transcendent talent. Introduced to golf at 3 by his father, Victor, a club pro, Sergio at 15 became the youngest to win the European Amateur. Less than two years later, he won a pro event, the Catalonian Open. In terms of hitting one pure shot after another, Garcia was even more a prodigy than Woods.
“We met for the first time in 1990,” says Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. “It was a Spanish 10-and-under, only nine holes. I remember he showed up playing golf in a bathing suit, and I think he beat the field by nine shots. He was already playing a different game. As a ball-striker, he is second to none.”
Jose Manuel Lara, a two-time European Tour winner, recalls an exhibition in which Garcia, then 15, played with Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez. “It was very obvious that he already hit the ball better than the other three,” Lara says. “They knew it, and so did Sergio.”
The gift endures. “The mechanics of Sergio’s downswing are more like Ben Hogan’s than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says former instructor Pete Cowen. “The way he uses his shoulders to apply downward pressure on the ball is what the term compression is all about.”
Keith Sbarbaro of TaylorMade’s tour operation says Garcia “hits everything so good, so naturally, he’s the easiest guy to fit in equipment that I’ve ever worked with. Every year, I just send the new stuff to Spain—driver, woods, irons, even putter and ball—and almost always he puts everything in play.”
On a staff that now includes Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm (not to mention Woods), Sbarbaro says Garcia “is the best when it comes to flushing the ball. It comes out of the middle of the club every time. Anyone on this range will tell you that, especially the young guys. They’ll play with him for the first time and make the same comment: ‘That’s as flush as it gets.’ ”
When Ben Crenshaw hosted Garcia and his father at Austin Golf Club the week before this year’s Masters, he got one of his prescient “feelings” about Sergio putting on a green jacket. “Honestly, it was the best ball-striking I have ever seen,” said Crenshaw, whose frame of reference and powers of observation are exceeded by few. “The contact, the ball flight, the control, the accuracy, shot after shot, it was so impressive. I mean eerily close to perfect golf.”
Garcia being able to access that gift when it mattered most is what made the Masters poignant and satisfying. Upon seeing fellow players after the victory, Garcia often got a bear hug. McIlroy and Danny Willett admitted being brought to tears by Garcia’s final putt. Says Soren Kjeldsen, who has a professional but not close relationship with Garcia: “It surprised me that I got emotional. But when you play this game, you know how long the journey can be. And Sergio has been through a lot. He really deserved it.”
Will there be a new Garcia? It will be apparent if Garcia adds to his Hall of Fame-quality career victory totals of 10 on the PGA Tour and 13 on the European Tour. But the measure for him—as it was when he lugged the mantel of Best Player Who Hasn’t Won a Major all the way to 0-73—will continue to be the four Grand Slam events.
Even when he hadn’t won one, they are the events for which Garcia’s game is suited.
The driver is his best club, his combination of length and accuracy placing him among the perennial leaders in strokes gained. “Sergio does what only the straightest drivers do: He returns the shaft plane to the same place it was at address,” Sbarbaro says. “Most tours pros are slightly above the plane. It’s why Phil has never been a straight driver. But Sergio has the talent and the strength to stay low and on top of the ball.”
Garcia’s putter has been his worst club for more than a decade, but it probably hurts him least at majors, where pars have more value. “Sergio as a kid was one of the greatest putters you’ve ever seen,” Fernandez-Castano says. “But by the time he was 17, I was reading interviews where he said his weakest club was the putter. I believe he talked himself into being a bad putter and lost confidence. Sometimes the guys who hit the ball closest but don’t see the reward can get negative.”
Cowen, who worked with Garcia on his short game in 2010, found him “a bit fragile” on and around the green. “I suggested he switch to The Claw about five years ago. He said never; never will do it. But when he could tell himself it was his idea, he made the switch on his own. He’s got a stubborn streak, but that right hand is definitely quieter.”
At this year’s Honda Classic, Sbarbaro suggested Garcia try the same mallet currently used with great success by Day, Johnson and Rahm. Garcia resisted but changed his mind a few weeks later and put it in the bag at the WGC-Match Play, where he lost to Rahm in the third round in his last event before Augusta. At the Masters, he wasn’t brilliant, but he holed out efficiently from short range, and it was just good enough. Given Augusta’s greens and the occasion, the Masters was a huge step up in Garcia’s three-year progression from bad to mediocre to decent putter.
Photo by Dom Furore
A CHANGE OF HEART
But for all those strengths in the physical game, where Garcia was singularly ill-suited for winning majors was in his attitude. Lee Trevino’s old maxim, “The good Lord doesn’t give anyone everything,” holds up. With Sergio, the missing piece seemed to be his heart.
Some of it was the discouragement of being flung headlong into the propellers of Tiger’s prolonged prime, a feeling felt by a whole generation of otherwise ambitious players. “My childhood dreams were kind of crushed,” says Adam Scott, “because Tiger was far and above anyone else’s capabilities for a long time.”
But no player, taking into account ability, temperament and expectation, felt the sting as much as Garcia. “It held me back a little bit, there’s no doubt,” he says. “But Tiger was that good. I can think that if he had not been there, I would have won more, but probably Arnold and Gary and Tom Watson could have said the same thing about Jack Nicklaus.”
Perhaps with Woods off the stage, it became more possible for Garcia to realize that most of his problems were self-imposed.
Camilo Villegas, who used to room with Garcia in their early days on tour, said that in down times he would remind his friend, “You’re good, you’re talented, so have a better attitude about this or that and go from there.” Adds Villegas: “Once Sergio accepted all that and said, ‘You know, the hell with it; I don’t care what people think, or what the media says, I’m going to appreciate and be happy,’ he started to make progress.”
As Garcia reflected Sunday night at the Masters, in the few seconds he stayed in a reprise of Crenshaw’s 1995 victory crouch after the winning putt dropped, among his closed-eyed thoughts were “Some of the moments I’ve had here at Augusta that maybe I haven’t enjoyed as much, and how stupid I really was trying to fight against something that you can’t fight.”
‘My daughter told me, “Dad, you cannot be that guy that you are. He’s not ready for you. Don’t be telling him all this stuff that you’ve told us all of our lives. It’s liable to scare him off.” ’ — Marty Akins / Future Father-In-Law
A NEW FAMILY’S INFLUENCE
The catalyst for such a crucial acknowledgement has been Akins, 31. The couple met in the fall of 2015 while Akins was at Golf Channel. A former high school basketball star and scholarship golfer at TCU and the University of Texas in her hometown of Austin, she understands competition and the right way to encourage Garcia, which she showed at Augusta while giving him a low five after he missed a 10-foot birdie putt to win on the 72nd hole.
“Instead of saying ‘Oh, what a shame; unlucky,’ ” Garcia said, effecting a whiny voice, “she was strong, saying, ‘C’mon, you got this; keep at it. You’re gonna do it.’ It was really nice to see that positivity.”
It’s what flows in torrents from Angela’s father, Marty Akins, a former All-America quarterback at Texas in the early ’70s who became a trial lawyer. In his uncompromising belief in what it takes to be the best, bolstered by a loquaciousness that in college earned him the nickname Jaws, Akins has fed his future son-in-law a steady diet that could be characterized as a parody of the American sports ethic. Except that for Garcia, who over the years has too often and infamously blamed fate and other dark forces for losses, it has been a remedial corrective.
“What I told Angela and my other kids is that if you think you’re good and you think you’re the best and you believe you’re good and believe you’re the best, then you’ll be the best,” Marty says. “That’s how my dad [legendary Texas high school coach Ray Akins, grandfather of NFL quarterback Drew Brees] taught me. I tried to do the same thing with Sergio. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t either send him a text or call him. And tell him that he’s the greatest golfer in the world. That nobody can beat him. And that he’s the best of the best. I keep telling him that every time I see him and every time I talk to him.”
Well, not the first time Marty met Garcia, in March 2016, when Angela brought Garcia to Austin to meet her parents. “No,” Marty says, “because my daughter told me, ‘Dad, you cannot be that guy that you are. He’s not ready for you. Don’t be telling him all this stuff that you’ve told us all of our lives. It’s liable to scare him off.’ So I waited a couple of months.”
Garcia has been charmed and awed by Marty, who has become his tutor in recreational bow target shooting on the Akins’ 1,500-acre ranch.
“Marty is an amazing guy, and he has his way that I can work into my way,” Garcia says. “With the mental stuff, I’ve always done it myself, no sport psychologists, and it’s worked OK. But there were a couple of things here and there that I could have been better at, and friends and family helped me see things by getting through my hard head. Some weeks my head is going to be calmer and better than others, because we know the ups and downs in this game.”
He remembers the despair that led him to say, after a third-round 75 at the 2012 Masters, “I’m not good enough ... I don’t have the thing that I need to have.”
In the time he has known Angela, Garcia has adjusted his self-talk to a blend of Akins-esque optimism and Zen-like acceptance, both accentuating the positive. It was on display at last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. After getting within one stroke of the lead with five holes left before making three bogeys on his way to finishing T-5, Garcia was surprisingly upbeat.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of nerves, but I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I think that I handled it quite well, and unfortunately, came up a little bit short. But I’m still happy with the week.”
Then during the Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, Garcia engaged with Phil Mickelson in an incredible match that produced 19 birdies. All even on the final hole, Mickelson made a 25-footer for birdie, and for a brief instant, Garcia, who had a 10-footer that he had expected to be for the win, dropped his head. But in a dramatic reversal from his career pattern, he gutted in the do-or-die putt.
“This is what I live for,” Garcia said. “I love these moments.” Watching on television at home in Spain, Lara said that when the putt dropped, he knew Garcia had become a different golfer. “I don’t think he would have made that putt two years ago,” Lara says. “I believe that was a big moment.”
Four months later, Garcia put on a ball-striking clinic in Dubai, cruising to victory even though he was pressed in the last group by Henrik Stenson. Something had happened to Garcia, suddenly strong, no longer fragile mentally.
It would all play out on Masters Sunday. Though at first overcome with emotion, he accepted the victory humbly.
It is Garcia’s new MO. When Woods recently signed with TaylorMade, Garcia rose above past recriminations and tweeted a welcome. After the Masters, Woods offered his own tweet of congratulations.
A few days later, Harrington told an interviewer about his frosty relationship with Garcia, saying that Sergio had been a “sore loser” after Harrington narrowly clipped him at the 2007 Open Championship and the 2008 PGA. But when the two met at McIlroy’s wedding in late April, Harrington praised Garcia for taking the high road and making what could have been an awkward situation “very easy.”
“He was like trying to apologize for something he said,” Garcia said, “and I was like, ‘It’s fine. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t bother me at all. I respect you. You respect me. We’re fine.’ You know, he’s a nice guy. I think I’m a nice guy, and we can get along fine.” Later, McIlroy would show a photo of Garcia puckering his lips while standing next to Harrington.
Garcia is also connecting with American fans in a way he hasn’t since his teenage debut. When he made a hole-in-one on the iconic 17th hole during the Players Championship, a chant of “Sergio! Sergio!” was started by autograph seekers—many of them young fans—after the round. It was noteworthy because a stricter policy at the Players to remove fans who yell out derogatory or ill-timed comments was implemented in part because of the way Garcia had been targeted in a playoff loss to Rickie Fowler in 2015. Part of the subtext was a widely publicized dispute between Garcia and Woods during the third round of the tournament in 2013. Woods would go on to win the tournament, and Garcia, amid audible comments, rinsed balls on the 17th and 18th holes in the final round. The crowd policy is now unofficially referred to as “the Sergio rule,” so to see the opposite response from the TPC gallery was telling.
Now in such a serene personal place, perhaps Garcia is primed to capitalize quickly off the Masters. Perhaps even repeat O’Meara’s feat by getting another major—or even two—this year at the remaining venues of Erin Hills, Royal Birkdale and Quail Hollow.
“I’m excited to put myself in that situation again and see if some of those things that helped me win at Augusta, hopefully will help me win later in the year,” he says. “I can see now that life is just little learning processes. And lately, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
As the man evolves, so, too, does the golfer.