After a long string of close calls in major championships, Sergio Garcia had seemingly resigned himself to concluding an otherwise successful career without a victory on one of golf’s Grand Slam events.
Despite waving a figurative white flag in what he viewed as a losing battle with Augusta National, Garcia continued to keep giving the Masters a shot, and in his 19th appearance in Augusta and 74th total in a major, Garcia traded his white flag for the red and yellow stripes of Spain’s national emblem.
Garcia ended his previously futile career quest for a major championship in Augusta, winning the 2017 Masters in a playoff over fellow Ryder Cup veteran and frequent teammate Justin Rose.
The 37-year-old Spaniard’s triumph was met with an outpouring of affection from both the spectators on site in Augusta and golf fans around the globe, which may not have been the case had Garcia won his first major earlier in his career.
Garcia was not always a particularly popular figure in his sport, with his frustration at earlier close calls in majors coming off as petulance, and his responses to disappointments viewed as preferring to surrender rather than fight.
But as he aged, Garcia developed into a more sympathetic figure, and he was definitely the people’s choice Sunday in Augusta, with the fall from contention of Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler helping in that regard.
Without a U.S. vs. Europe Ryder Cup-style competition, there were no shouts of “USA! USA!” ringing in Garcia’s ears, and with the crowd on his side, he pulled off the victory with a spectacular stretch of shot-making down the stretch to wear down Rose, who had the green jacket in his grasp for almost the entire back nine.
The final round began with Garcia and Rose tied for the lead at 6-under, one ahead of Fowler, and two in front of Spieth and two fellow Americans who were not expected to seriously contend on Sunday.
Charley Hoffman, the leading man at Augusta National for all of the first two rounds and 15 holes of the third, and Ryan Moore, who battled Rory McIlroy on even terms in last year’s Tour Championship at East Lake, were also two back beginning the final round, but both backed up on Sunday.
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, spun his wheels for the entire final round after beginning the day three back, and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, four off the lead after three rounds, waited until it was too late to make his move.
The only player to seriously challenge Garcia and Rose in the final round was rising young European star Thomas Pieters, who won an individual NCAA title during his time on the Illinois golf team. Pieters, who went 4-0-1 during his rookie appearance on the 2016 Ryder Cup team, was five shots off the lead after 54 holes, and was six back when he ran off four consecutive birdies at holes 12 through 15.
But his charge stalled with a bogey at the 16th, and he wound up tied for fourth at 5-under 283, one behind Schwartzel, who birdied the 18th to finish outright third at 282.
Also tying for third was frequent Masters contender Matt Kuchar, who channeled his final round comeback in the 2016 Olympics that produced a silver medal. With seven holes to play Sunday, Kuchar was even par for the day and the tournament, and needed a strong finish for a back door top 10.
With birdies at 12, 13 and 14 and a hole-in-one on the friendly back left pin position at 16, Kuchar was 5-under for five holes, and matched the low score of the day (67) to tie for fourth, the fourth time in the last six years he has finished eighth or better in Augusta.
Kuchar’s late round heroics gave him a brief place in the Masters Sunday spotlight, but after the untimely early demises of the four closest American pursuers, the starring roles were reserved for Garcia and Rose. Neither wilted from the harsh glare, unlike the quartet of American supporting actors.
With birdies at two of the first three holes and a Rose bogey at the fifth, Garcia assumed a three-shot lead, but Rose responded with birdies at 6, 7 and 8 to pull even. Garcia missed makeable birdie attempts at 8 and 9, and his usually impeccable ball striking temporarily vanished on the 10th tee with the first of three straight drives that either cost him shots or should have.
Bogeys at 10 and 11 dropped Garcia two behind Rose, and when Rose failed to clear the trees at the corner of the dogleg left par-5 13th and had to take a drop for an unplayable lie, it appeared that it was going to be another final round disappointment for the Spaniard.
But Garcia somehow managed to save par after chipping out of the trees with his third shot, and Rose three-putted for par to fail to increase his lead. Trailing by only two instead of four, Garcia suddenly regained his ball-striking wizardry, and went birdie-eagle on 14 and 15 to pull even with Rose.
The one thing that plagued Garcia in the final round prior to his poor series of drives beginning at the 10th was an inability to fully capitalize on his superb iron play. He missed at least three short-ish birdie putts on the opening nine, and missed again at the 16th after Rose curled in his birdie attempt to reclaim the lead.
But Rose could not get up-and-down the sand on 17, and his bogey sent the pair to the 18th tee all square. After Rose missed his birdie try on the 18th green, Garcia was fooled by a downhill birdie putt in the 5-foot range, and missed badly to send the two to a playoff.
Rose drove into the right trees on 18 and his punch out barely got past Garcia’s tee shot. When Garcia hit his approach to about 10 feet, Rose was forced to make par to have any hope of extending the playoff, but settled for bogey. Needing two putts to win, Garcia required only one, rolling in his birdie attempt to join countrymen Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal as a Masters champion.
Garcia and Rose both shot 3-under 69 Sunday to finish at 9-under 279, three clear of Schwartzel, who shot 68 with five birdies on his final 10 holes. With Kuchar shooting 67 and Pieters 68 to tie for fourth, Paul Casey closing with a 68 to take sixth at 284, and 2016 Tour Championship playoff participant Kevin Chappell sneaking in with an almost invisible 68 to tie McIlroy (69) for seventh at 285, the final round was starkly divided between those who went forward the final day and those who didn’t.
Scott (73) and Moore (74) managed to hang for top-10 finishes, tying for ninth at 286. Fowler (76) and Spieth (75) both faded to a tie for 11th at 289, with Spieth salvaging his round with three birdies on the final four holes, not nearly enough to match his 2-1-2 finishes of the previous three years. Fowler hung around for 10 holes, but shot 40 on the back nine with bogeys at 16, 17 and 18.
Macon’s Russell Henley, who earned his Masters invite with a win in Houston the previous week, closed with a 69 to also tie for 11th and guarantee his return to Augusta in 2018. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama had seven birdies in a final round 67 and was T11 at 287 along with Brooks Koepka, who shot 69 Sunday with five birdies on his last six holes along with a double bogey at the 17th.
Steve Stricker, who recently turned 50, shot 69 Sunday to tie for 16th at 288, but missed a top-12 finish by one in what could be his final start in Augusta. Martin Kaymer, who missed five cuts and never finished better than 30th in his first nine Masters, matched Matsuyama’s seven birdies Sunday and shot 68 for a career-best tie for 16th at Augusta National.
One of the positive stories for much of the tournament was the play of 57-year-old Fred Couples, who was among the leaders before playing his final four holes Saturday in 3-over. Couples was hanging in Sunday but was 3-over for the last eight holes, with a final round 72 good for a T18 at 289.
At least Couples matched par the final day. Joining Scott, Moore and Spieth and Fowler with over-par scores Sunday were perennial contender Lee Westwood (73-289), Hoffman (78-290) and unheralded William McGirt (74-290), like Hoffman a leading man for Thursday, Friday and much of Saturday.
Hoffman’s opening 65 in brisk, windy weather conditions was perhaps the greatest opening round in tournament history, with McGirt (69) the only other player to break 70 that day. Hoffman’s 75 Friday was a respectable score in similar weather conditions, and he was still tied for the lead Saturday until hitting his tee shot in the water for a double bogey on the par-3 16th. His final round 78 included a pair of double bogeys (7 and 13) and consecutive bogeys at 15, 16 and 17.
McGirt, who spent his early years as a pro grinding away on regional mini-tours, hung tough until late in the final round, when he made double on the pesky 16th.
Also tying for 22nd at 290 was the slightly more accomplished trio of Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson. Day made the cut on the number at 150, and spent Saturday playing in the first twosome off the tee with Augusta National member Jeff Knox, one of Georgia’s top amateur players. Day shot 69 that day and closed with a 71. Thomas was never a factor, but Mickelson was on the leader board for much of the tournament after a succession of fast starts.
Mickelson was 3-under after four holes Thursday after an eagle on the second and an even more unlikely birdie at the par-3 fourth, but needed a rally on the back nine for a 71. He was 2-under after 13 holes Friday and within one of the lead, but was 3-over after that to fall four back after 36 holes. He started birdie-birdie Saturday, but made double bogey at the third and settled for a 74 after going out in 39.
Another eagle on the second Sunday gave Mickelson an early boost but was followed by another double on the short par-4 third. He needed three birdies on his last six holes for a 72, as his struggles with short putts re-surfaced, not an encouraging sign for the soon-to-be 47-year-old.
Garcia has also spent his share of time on Masters leader boards, but prior to 2017 had only one top 10 and two other top 20s since 2004. All three of those occurred in the last five years, and Garcia came into the Masters 11th in the world rankings (he’s now 7th), with his 2017 highlight a win in the Dubai Desert Classic. It was his 12th European Tour win in his career along with 10 PGA Tour titles including the 2008 Players and six other international victories.
The win evens Garcia’s PGA Tour playoff record at 6-6, and makes him 1-1 in majors following his 2007 British Open loss to Padraig Harrington. With 22 ½ points in eight Ryder Cup appearances, he is one of the most successful players in the history of that competition, but after his win in the Masters, that will no longer be at the top of his list of career achievements.