Sergio Garcia claims one of sport’s greatest triumphs in Masters thriller

The smile on Sergio Garcia's face says it all as last year's winner Danny Willett slips the Green Jacket over his shoulders. Picture: Getty Images
The smile on Sergio Garcia's face says it all as last year's winner Danny Willett slips the Green Jacket over his shoulders. Picture: Getty Images
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Justin Rose looked set to bloom in a Masters without the azealas in full colour until Sergio Garcia delivered one of the most popular sporting triumphs of all time.

First and foremost, a play-off victory over Rose after the pair had traded blows in a thrilling back-nine battle at Augusta National brought delight at long last in a major for Garcia.

Sergio Garcia celebrates after holing his birdie putt in the play-off at Augusta National. Picture: AP

Sergio Garcia celebrates after holing his birdie putt in the play-off at Augusta National. Picture: AP

It finally came in the Spaniard’s 75th appearance in one of those events, having teed up in 71 consecutively stretching back to the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie.

Even for sheer persistence alone, he deserved this success and how appropriate that it should come on the day that Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60.

Ballesteros, the first European to become Masters champion and a two-time winner here, was one of Garcia’s two golfing heroes as he was cutting his own teeth in the sport.

The other one, of course, was another of his compatriots, Jose Maria Olazabal, who also recorded a brace of victories in the season’s opening major.

Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose share a few words at the end of their thrilling back-nine battle in the 81st Masters. Picture: Getty Images

Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose share a few words at the end of their thrilling back-nine battle in the 81st Masters. Picture: Getty Images

“It’s amazing to do it on Seve’s 60th birthday and to join the two idols in my life is something amazing, too,” said the 37-year-old before having the Green Jacket slipped over his shoulders by Danny Willett.

Garcia, who started the final round sharing the lead with playing partner Rose, found himself three shots clear of the field after just five holes.

In a dramatic turnaround, he then fell two shots behind Rose after starting the back nine bogey-bogey and looked set to slip even further adrift after having to take a penalty drop from a bush following his drive at the 13th.

But, after making a brilliant up and down there to save par, Garcia got going again, following a birdie at the 14th with an eagle-3 at the 15th, where his 8-iron approach pitched a couple of inches short of the hole, rolled up the flag and came to rest eight feet away.

The last player to make an eagle 3 at that hole before going on to claim victory had been Olazabal back in 1999. Talk about something being written in the stars.

That said, Rose got his nose back in front again with a birdie at the 16th, where Matt Kuchar had made a hole-in-one about an hour earlier.

The Englishman, bidding to follow up his 2013 US Open victory, wasted that good work, though, by taking a 5 at the 17th before both players were unable to convert birdie attempts from inside 15 feet at the last.

When Garcia’s five-footer dribbled past the right edge, you really did fear the worst for him. Wife-to-be Angela Akins has helped him find inner peace, though. He wasn’t going to let this chance slip away.

After the pair returned to the 18th hole, having finished with nine-under-par 279 totals, Rose pushed his drive into the trees, from where he couldn’t get on the green in two.

Garcia had no such problems, hitting another majestic approach before coaxing a 15-footer into the hole for a birdie when he had two putts for victory.

As the spectators shouted “Sergio, Sergio”, he bent down at one point and banged the ground in celebration.

It was a joyous moment and you just felt that Seve was looking down wearing one his heart-warming smiles.

“I am sure he helped a little bit out there today with some of the the shots and some of the putts,” admitted the new champion.

While “disappointed”, Rose is confident he, too, can claim a Green Jacket one day, having also finished runner-up to Jordan Spieth in 2015.

“It was a wonderful battle today and, if I was going to lose to anyone, I don’t mind it being Sergio,” said the 2014 Scottish Open champion. “He’s had his fair share of heartbreak, so he deserves it.

“I think this is a tournament I am going to win one day. I feel really confident here and hopefully I can eventually pull it off.”

The pair finished three shots ahead of 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel (68) in third-place, with Kuchar’s ace helping him to a 67 as he ended up joint-fourth with Belgian Thomas Pieters (68).

“What a thrill to have with all those people going crazy,” said Kuchar of his hole-in-one that sent cheers echoing all the way back to Garcia and Rose as they were playing the 11th hole.

Schwartzel closed with a pair of 68s as the 32-year-old returned to the sort of form that saw him become a major champion.

“I really thought towards the end there, especially standing on the 14th fairway, if I could make another few birdies I would have had a really good chance,” he said.

“But Sergio and Justin were playing well and it’s hard to come back from way behind.”

Pieters may have been unable to become the first debutant to win here since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, but boy did the 25-year-old Belgian give it a good go.

A closing 68, which included four birdies in a row from the 12th, lifted Pieters into a share of fourth spot and he’ll be returning here in years to come feeling confident he can improve on that effort.

“I’m happy the way I fought back after yesterday,” he said, having left himself with just too much on his plate following a 75 on Saturday.

Asked about his goal going forward in this event, Pieters added: “To finish better. Maybe two, three better than this would be nice.”

Rory McIlroy’s bid to try and complete what is fast becoming an exclusive career Grand Slam will have to wait another 12 months after being unable to make his presence felt over the final two rounds.

Since giving himself that opportunity to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning all four majors, the Northern Irishman has finished fourth, 10th and seventh.

That’s anything but shabby, but McIlroy just can’t seem to find that spark here that helped him land two US PGA titles, a US Open and, of course, an Open Championship in 2014.

“I feel like I’ve finished five or six back the last few years so give me a six-shot start and I’m your man,” said the 27-year-old after signing off with a 69 - his best round of the week - to finish onthree-under.

“I feel encouraged, if nothing else. I feel comfortable on the golf course and feel like every time I tee up I’ve got a chance to win. I’ve had four top 10s in a row here.

“Top 10s isn’t what Im looking for but, at the same time, the ups and downs I’ve had here in the past don’t quite seem to be so up and quite so down.

“It seems a little more steady, and that can only bode well for the future.”

It was a disappointing last day for Spieth and fellow American Rickie Fowler as they closed with rounds of 75 and 76 respectively.

Spieth, who had come into this event with a 2-1-2 record here, had opened with the same score and wasn’t overly disappointed to have finished 11th on this occasion.

“It would have been easy to throw the towel in after the first round (which included a quadruple-bogey 9 at the 15th), said the 23-year-old, “but I gave myself a chance to win the tournament.

“There are a lot of positives. It’s another good tournament and I’m fortunate to come back here for another 50 years.”

This one belonged to Garcia, though, and Arnold Palmer would certainly have approved of seeing the Spaniard finally get that monkey off his back in the first Masters to be staged since the American passed away last September.

Magnifico, Sergio!