In the golden twilight of a perfect Masters Sunday, two little boys sneaked into a prime spot behind the 18th green to catch the end of the tournament. Their dad was practically giddy. "How cool is this, guys?" Matt Kuchar said. Less than an hour earlier he had aced the 16th hole to briefly factor into the unfolding drama. Now Kuchar (who tied for fourth) had come to witness golf’s most unlikely reinvention: Sergio García as a humble, gritty, thoroughly likable champion. After a back-nine rally for the ages, García stuffed his approach shot to the 72nd hole, conjuring Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson and other greats who have taken the Masters with walk-off birdies. Now García, 37, faced what every player dreams of right up until the moment he is actually confronted with it: a putt to win the green jacket. Then the weight of history makes the putter feel like an anvil, the fear of failure turns the palms sweaty and the sheer magnitude of the moment crushes the diaphragm. García had only a five-footer for glory, but from the grave Masters co-founder Bobby Jones offered a warning: No putt is short enough to be despised, he once said. García’s ball never touched the hole, dooming him to sudden death against one of the game’s coolest customers, Justin Rose. García later said he misread the putt, but from behind the green Kuchar offered a different read: "The nerves were showing."
Surely now García would crack. Hasn’t he always? The lost opportunity brought to mind the 2007 British Open, at which García had an eight-footer at the 72nd hole to win; he blew that putt too. Afterward he cryptically said that he was "playing against more than the field." It was typical of the persecution complex he had carried for much of his career. Other players sensed García’s mental fragility and delighted in hazing him, particularly Tiger Woods (who made jokes about the all-yellow outfit García wore during their duel at the ’06 British Open) and Padraig Harrington (who gave García the silent treatment in the ensuing playoff at the ’07 British Open, then beat him in a tense mano a mano at the 2008 PGA Championship).
But García is no longer the callow teen who scissor-kicked his way onto the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship. There’s gray in his stubble and, at long last, peace in his heart. Returning to the 18th hole for the playoff, Rose drove first, into the trees, and he was forced to punch out and scramble from there. García summoned two perfect shots and then rattled in a 12-foot birdie putt for a life-changing win. The celebration was cathartic: primal screams, a manly embrace with the classy Rose, the crowd deliriously chanting, Ser-gee-oh! Ser-gee-oh! Disbelief hung in the air like the scent of magnolia—how had García done it at last? Jones offered the only possible explanation: A golf tournament is all in the book before the first ball is driven.
Woods beat García by a shot at the 1999 PGA, touching off a decade of unprecedented dominance. "Poor Sergio," says his Ryder Cup comrade Martin Kaymer. "It wasn’t fair to be made into Tiger’s rival—who could live up to that? I think it damaged him a little bit."
Throughout the aughts García became increasingly petulant, flipping off a hostile crowd at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and spitting into the cup in disgust at Doral. He seemed to finally find himself in ’08, when he won the Players, finished second at the PGA and climbed to No. 2 in the World Ranking. But in early ’09 he got dumped by Greg Norman’s daughter, Morgan-Leigh, whom García said was the first woman he had ever loved. He went into a deep funk, failing to win on the PGA Tour for the next four years. Early in the slump he said, "When I am not feeling happy on a golf course and not up for it, I can’t do well."
He ended the victory drought at the 2012 Wyndham Championship, only to have his heart broken again at the following year’s Masters. In position to end his reign as the dreaded Best Player Never to Have Won a Major, García blew himself out of the tournament with a third-round 75 and said, "I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place." It was a startling confession, but Jones commiserates: Some emotions could not be endured with a golf club in my hands.
By the time García arrived at Augusta last week he was largely a forgotten figure, despite a lopsided win two months earlier against a good field in Dubai. But he had a secret weapon: He was in love again, this time with Angela Akins, 31, a former Golf Channel talent who now wears an engagement ring the size of a satellite dish. García’s life as a swinging bachelor has been replaced by a contented domesticity. While the Spaniard keeps a house in Switzerland, largely for tax purposes, his home base has increasingly become the 1,250-acre Akins family ranch outside of Austin. He and Angela love to watch horror movies, and on a big night they might play dominoes, spades and Yahtzee against her parents, Marty and Pam. "It gets pretty cutthroat because my wife and I don’t like to lose," says Marty. He has taught his future son-in-law how to shoot a rifle and recently bought him a compound bow; they’re planning to hunt the elk, white-tail deer and black buck that roam the property.
Angela was an ankle-breaking point guard who had a handful of scholarship offers until she blew out an ACL as a senior in high school. She played golf at Texas and is still good enough to engage in spirited matches with her fiancé. Her feisty competitiveness comes by way of a family of football royalty: Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a cousin; Marty was an All-America quarterback for the Longhorns in the 1970s; and grandfather Ray Akins was a legendary Texas high school coach, winning 293 games across 38 seasons at Gregory-Portland. Just as Dustin Johnson has benefited from the invaluable wisdom of his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, García has fallen under the thrall of the down-home Marty, who is serving as an unofficial sports psychologist. "I tell him all the time he’s the greatest golfer in the world because that’s what I believe," Marty said last Saturday. "As soon as he believes it, the results will show it. When Angela was playing sports, I told her this all the time: What you think you are is what you are."
Throughout Masters week Angela reinforced what she called "the good energy" by taping inspirational quotes from everyone from Buddha to Audrey Hepburn on the bathroom mirror. Given the conditions at Augusta National last Thursday, she might have chosen Bobby Jones: The main difficulty offered by a strong breeze arises from its effect upon the mind of the player. The 40-mph gusts wreaked so much havoc that the game’s grittiest grinder, Jordan Spieth, made a 9 on the par-5 15th hole, his second straight Masters round with a quadruple bogey. In the past García let Augusta National get into his head as he was "trying to fight against something you can’t fight." This time he accepted the vagaries of the wind with an admirable stoicism and ground out 17 pars to go with a lone birdie, cobbling together his third bogeyless round in this, his 19th Masters appearance.
On Friday he began with three straight birdies (he was the only player in the field to birdie the devilish 1st) and saved par from a brutal plugged lie on the 12th hole with what he called the best bunker shot of his life. After carding a 69, García shared the midway lead at four under with likable veteran Charley Hoffman; the young Belgian bomber, Thomas Pieters; and Rickie Fowler, who has now assumed the mantle of BPNTHWAM. After the round García credited not his swing—which retains the natural athleticism of his youth—but a vastly improved attitude. "I think I’m a little bit calmer now," he said. "I’m working on trying to accept things. It’s not easy, but that’s the challenge we always have."
García’s equanimity was a sign that something larger was brewing. Augusta National is the game’s grandest stage, allowing golfers to access a deeper emotion, whether it’s a teary-eyed Ben Crenshaw being guided to victory in 1995 by the unseen hand of his teacher, Harvey Penick, whom he buried the day before the start of the tournament, or Mickelson winning in 2010 for his cancer-stricken wife, Amy. This year’s final round coincided with what would have been the 60th birthday of Seve Ballesteros, the two-time Masters champ who was García’s idol and mentor. Noting this kismet, Amy Mickelson said last Saturday, "Watch out for Sergio this week. I totally believe in that stuff around here."
During the third round García was puttering along at even par when he tried to get home in two from the rough on the par-5 13th hole. He put a good swing on a 4-iron, but his ball came out soft and expired short of the green, into the hazard. Yet instead of trickling into Rae’s Creek, the ball Velcro’d to the bank, Fred Couples style. It was the break of a lifetime—thanks, Seve!—and García followed with a deft chip to cash in the birdie. Whatever may be a player’s skill, he must have luck to win a championship of any kind; golf is still a game rather than a science, and a game it is likely to remain.
García’s 70 tied him for the lead at six under with Rose, 36, the 2013 U.S. Open champ and reigning Olympic gold medalist. He had roared home in 31 playing alongside Adam Scott; both are among the best ball strikers on the planet. Rose signed for the day’s low round, a 67, two better than Scott. "It was really beautiful stuff," said Rose’s swing coach, Sean Foley. "I know it’s the Masters, but Justin and Adam were out there playing a little game: Whatever you can do, I can do better. I’ve been at this a long time, but I was like a kid in a candy store watching them one-up each other."
On Sunday, García came out looking more relaxed than any other contender, and thanks to two quick birdies, he built a three-shot lead after five holes. Rose reeled in his playing partner with three straight birds beginning on the 6th. Shaky drives by García on the tough 10th and 11th holes led to back-to-back bogeys, and it looked as if Rose, leading by two, would put a stranglehold on the tournament at number 13. He smoked a perfect drive, and García, straining to keep up, clipped a tree with his, the ball ricocheting into an unplayable lie hard against a bush. Afterward, he admitted that in the past he would have wallowed in self-pity. This time he told himself, "If that’s what’s supposed to happen, let it happen. Let’s try to make a great 5 here and see if we can put on a helluva finish to have a chance."
After a penalty drop, punch-out and deft wedge, García faced an eight-footer for that par. He buried it, and then Rose, having gone over the green with his second, missed a six-footer for birdie. It was a massive momentum shift. (No virtue in this world is so often rewarded as perseverance.) A fired-up García followed with a birdie at 14 and an eagle at 15, set up by maybe the purest approach shot since Gene Sarazen’s in 1935. Augusta National shook. Rose birdied the 15th to keep a share of the lead, nosed ahead with a stout birdie at 16 and then gave back the advantage with a bogey out of the greenside bunker at 17, setting up the closing drama.
García’s win came in his 74th major championship, the longest any player has ever waited for such a breakthrough. Having grown up between the ropes, the new and improved García has charmed his peers. Brandt Snedeker calls him "one of the most caring, fun, funny people around." He adds, "I think he deserved to win a major. I feel like the game is in a better place with him winning a major instead of the other way around."
The sports world may obsess about results but in victory García displayed an admirable perspective. "To be totally honest, I’m very happy but I don’t feel any different," he said. "I’m obviously thrilled about what happened here today, but I’m still the same goofy guy, so that’s not going to change."
Here, Jones deserves the final word: Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play the ball where it lies. The breaks will even themselves up in the long run, if the run is long enough.