It would be stretching things to claim that Sergio Garcia hadn’t accomplished much in his life this time last year. His haul as a professional, after all, already included 12 European Tour titles, nine PGA Tour triumphs and eight Ryder Cup appearances, five of which were victories. There’s no denying, though, that the last 12 months have brought more joy and satisfaction for the Spaniard than anything he’d ever achieved or experienced beforehand.
Put it this way, winning your first major at the 74th attempt to become Masters champion on the day that Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60, getting married to Angela Akins, the women he also describes as his “best friend”, and then becoming a dad for the first time – the couple’s daughter, Azalea Adele Garcia, was born just over a fortnight ago – is a pretty special package in anyone’s language.
“Everything that has been going on has been unbelievable,” Garcia told Scotland on Sunday as he prepared for his return to Augusta National next week as the defending champion in the opening men’s major in 2018. “I’ve always said that I’ve been fortunate to have an amazing career and an amazing life, and now it’s getting even better with winning Augusta, with getting married to my best friend and amazing woman like Angela is and now having our first child. It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and we can’t wait for what the future is going to bring us.”
Ever since he burst on to the scene – he won a professional event, the Catalan Open, as an amateur in 1997 before claiming victory in the Amateur Championship at Muirfield two years later – Garcia has been one of golf’s most recognisable and popular figures. Even he has found, though, that becoming the owner of a coveted Green Jacket has raised his profile to a new level. “You know how big the Masters is, but when you win it, you realise how much bigger it is all over the world,” he admitted. “People definitely recognise me a little bit more all over the place outside of the golf course, and also there’s more interest in me. I realise how much people really look up to the Masters and the Green Jacket. It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been awesome. It’s been a tremendous honour, and it’s probably bigger than maybe I thought or expected. It’s been a fun ride.”
Anyone who has followed Garcia’s career closely would probably say the same thing. For the most part, he has competed with a smile on his face and also played the game in a manner that has always had the potential to be exciting. There are many people out there who feared that major was going to prove elusive, especially as his putting became suspect, but he got there and there’s a good chance the floodgates might open now.
“I obviously feel very proud for being able to win a major, and to win the Masters on top of that,” he said of joining fellow Spaniards Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in tasting victory at Augusta National. “But, you know, I don’t feel like it has changed my life. I’m still doing the same things. I’m still the same guy. I didn’t know what to expect. Obviously it’s something that until it happens, you don’t know what it’s going to feel like and what it’s going to do to you. But I’m happy that I don’t feel it has changed me. I don’t feel like I’m better than I was before or anything like that.”
Ballesteros became the first European to claim a Green Jacket in 1980 before triumphing again three years later, with Bernhard Langer recording the first of his two triumphs in 1985. After Sandy Lyle then claimed the breakthrough success by a British player in the event in 1988 and was quickly joined on the roll of honour by Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, Olazabal also became a double Masters champion by winning in 1994 then again in 1999. “I was very, very inspired by them,” said Garcia of European golf’s pioneers in the event. “Everybody knows that Seve and Olazábal are both my golfing idols. I know how well they have done at Augusta, and it was a dream come true since 1999, the first time I played as an amateur, to have the possibility to play there as many times as possible and hopefully win it at least once. To be able to finally do it was a dream come true, and it feels an honour to join my golfing idols as a Masters champion.”
To do so, Garcia had to dig deep to get the better of his Ryder Cup team-mate, Justin Rose, on the final day. The sportsmanship between the pair that afternoon and the warm embrace they shared after Garcia triumphed at the first extra hole in a play-off was heart-warming. “Unfortunately, one of us had to lose, but I think the battle was amazing and not only for us to challenge each other and really enjoy it, but for the people that were watching, I think they all really had a good time,” recalled Garcia. “We were both playing as hard as we could. We were congratulating each other for great shots and the great battle that we were having. Obviously we’re good friends, so that kind of helps. It was two guys fighting hard for their first Green Jacket, but keeping it friendly by being sportsmen and showing everyone that you can still have a great battle without having to be too serious or too competitive.”
It’s certainly been very competitive in the build-up to this year’s event, with Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and, of course, career Grand Slam-chasing Rory McIlroy all having tasted victory in the countdown to the first of the season’s big four tournaments. Add in four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods having been in sparkling form over the past few weeks and Garcia has a job on his hands in his bid to become the first back-to-back winner since Woods in 2002.
“I talked to José Maria Olazábal about winning the Masters and going to Augusta as a champion and what it feels like walking into Augusta as a champion now instead of just as a normal player,” he said of his obligations next week. “I’m excited about the Champions Dinner and everything that comes with winning the Masters and everything that I’ll have to do. I think it can’t be that different from what we deal with week-in and week-out. So I’m sure that we can manage it the best way possible so that I’ll be 100 per cent going into Thursday morning.”
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