By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Sergio Garcia ended nearly two decades of major heartbreak when he beat Justin Rose in a playoff to win the U.S. Masters on Sunday on what would have been the 60th birthday of his hero, the late Seve Ballesteros.
After four runner-up finishes and years of self doubt, Spain’s Garcia finally delivered the long-awaited title that seemed destined to forever elude him.
His 12-foot birdie putt at the first extra hole dropped into the cup at the par-four 18th, triggering a massive cheer from an Augusta National gallery that began chanting his name after willing him across the line.
As his ball disappeared, Garcia crouched, clenched his fists and let out a mighty scream of pure joy releasing years of frustration, his 74 major starts the most made by any professional golfer before a first win.
“I did think about, am I ever going to win one?” admitted Garcia. “I’ve had so many good chances and either I lost them or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me. So it did cross my mind.
“But lately I’ve been thinking a little bit different, a little bit more positive and kind of accepting, too, that if it for whatever reason didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on.”
Deadlocked after nine holes, the two friends and rivals produced an enthralling back nine showdown worthy of any Masters final round in what became a head-to-head battle after the other challengers fell away.
Garcia and Rose both carded 69 to finish tied on nine-under-par 279, three strokes clear of 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, sending the year’s first major to a playoff when both missed birdie putts at the 72nd hole.
Garcia frittered away a chance to win in regulation when his downhill five-footer dribbled away to the right and did not even threaten the cup, moments after Rose had also misread his seven-footer.
It marked the first Masters playoff since Adam Scott beat Angel Cabrera to become the first Australian to wear the Green Jacket in 2013.
All the omens had seemed in place for a Spanish victory with Garcia starting the day perched atop the leaderboard alongside Rose on Ballesteros’ birthday.
Ballesteros, the Spanish talisman who died of brain cancer in 2011, inspired a generation of golfers in his country, winning the Green Jacket in 1980 and 1983.
Garcia becomes the third Spaniard to win the Masters, also joining Jose Maria Olazabal, who triumphed twice at Augusta, in 1994 and 1999.
“It is amazing. To do it on his (Ballesteros’) 60th birthday and to join him and Jose Maria Olazabal, my two idols in golf, it is something amazing,” said Garcia. “I’m sure he helped a little bit with some of those shots or some of those putts.”
Garcia has been plagued by self doubt in the majors and once said he did not have what it takes to be a major winner. On Sunday, though, he demonstrated during an enthralling rollercoaster battle with Rose that he does indeed possess the tools, demeanor and determination of a champion.
Rose certainly was convinced, the Olympic champion going toe-to-toe with Garcia in a back-nine battle that at times played out like a heavyweight fight.
“You can’t feel bad for me,” said Rose. “If there was anyone to lose to it would be Sergio.
“He deserves it as much as anyone out here. He’s had his fair share of heartbreak.”
Garcia and Rose traded birdies on the front nine to make the turn tied, before Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes as Rose took a two-shot lead with six holes left.
The two par-fives on the back nine proved pivotal, with Garcia making a clutch seven-footer to save par at the 13th before Rose missed a six-footer that would have taken him three clear.
They were on level terms two holes later after Garcia almost made an albatross at the par-five 15th, his eight-iron second landing inches short of the hole before brushing the pin and trickling 14 feet away, from where he made his eagle putt, the ball teetering on the edge of the cup before toppling in.
Back on level terms with three holes left, Rose landed the next blow by sinking an eight-foot birdie before Garcia missed a tricky five-footer.
But then it was Rose’s turn to miss, failing to convert a seven-footer for par at the 17th and sending them to the 18th tied again, Ryder Cup team mates each on the verge of achieving a lifelong dream.
Garcia’s legion of fans around the world surely feared another nightmare ending, but this time there was a happy ending for the Spaniard.
“Today I felt the calmest I’ve ever felt on a major Sunday,” Garcia said.
(Editing by Andrew Both)