Sergio Garcia got his biggest kick out of wearing the Green Jacket in front of 90,000 screaming Spanish football fans. Admittely, they were packed into the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid for the recent El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona but, nonetheless, gave the Masters champion a warm welcome when he appeared on the pitch before the match.
“The coolest thing would be the kick-off at El Clasico, for sure, as that was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had,” said Garcia, speaking on the eve of the Players Championship at Sawgrass, as he reflected on all the stuff he’d been up to over the past five weeks after finally landing his first major at the 74th attempt.
“I was telling Rory [McIlroy] and some of the other guys that I’ve been very fortunate to have 15,000-20,000 people chanting my name at Augusta, Ryder Cups or the British Open and it’s unbelievable. But to walk on what I think is the best soccer stadium in the world, the Bernabeu, and in El Clasico against Barcelona, which is probably the biggest football game that exists in this world, and to have 90,000 people chanting your name, that was extremely special.
“Yeah, and, even though I was only kicking the ball 15 yards, I was nervous. That was very unique and something that, with many things that happened at Augusta and everything, that I will never forget.”
Neither, of course, will be becoming the third Spaniard to win the Masters on the day that the late Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60. Having not picked up a club in anger since beating Justin Rose at the first extra hole in a play-off at Augusta National, Garcia will probably be a tad rusty when he returns to action in the so-called fifth major.
It would be foolish, though, to rule him out as a title contender over the next four days. This event, after all, has had a habit of bringing out the best in the 37-year-old. He won it in 2008 and came close to repeating the feat two years ago, losing in a play-off to Rickie Fowler.
So far this week Garcia has been humbled by the warmth from his peers. “What has meant the most is to see the reaction from the players towards me and other than a couple, how happy they all have been,” he said, smiling. “That, to me, it shows me a lot. It shows me how much my fellow players respect me and care about me. It’s something that you can’t really fake, so that’s awesome. Is it ideal to come back and be the first tournament this one? Hopefully we’ll be able to say that on Sunday.”
In an event that sees Jason Day as the defending champion, world No 1 Dustin Johnson attempting land his fourth win in five events and newly-married Rory McIlroy trying out his new clubs in the heat of battle for the first time, Russell Knox and Martin Laird are bidding to mark the 30th anniversary of Sandy Lyle’s win by landing another Scottish success this weekend.
“While I was born in Scotland, I have lived here in the area for well over 10 years and gone to college here, so this is very much like my second home”, said Jacksonville-based Knox, who is unfazed about returning to the iconic 17th hole with its island green despite running up a sextuple-bogey 9 in the third round last year. “So, this week is like a second Scottish Open for me.”
As for Laird, he’s hoping to draw on some good memories in this event. “I had a great finish in being second here in 2012, starting with a 65 and ending with a 67,” he recalled. “I know what you have to do around here to play well and also the changes (including a new drivable par-4 12th hole) they have made the course are really good.”