In the shadow of Medinah Country Club’s majestic clubhouse, at a PGA Championship long ago, Ben Crenshaw waited for his audience with the boy king. Crenshaw was a month away from serving as captain of the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team, so he was closely eyeing the final round of the PGA, watching to see how both teams might gel. Just moments earlier, Sergio Garcia had run out of holes in a thrilling duel with Tiger Woods, failing to claim the Wanamaker trophy but securing a spot in his very first Ryder Cup. “Boy, that kid is gonna be a handful,” Crenshaw said. Finally, the young Spaniard materialized, and Crenshaw offered him a manly hug and some down-home consolation: “You didn’t get this one, but you’re gonna win so many of these you’re gonna get tired of lifting trophies.”
Of course, who didn’t get swept up in the turn-of-the-century Sergiomania? The kid had it all, including a boyishness that transcended borders. But what Crenshaw couldn’t know was that the “99 PGA Championship would propel Woods to the most dominant run of golf ever played. Poor Sergio had his spirit crushed along the way, and by the time the 2002 U.S. Open rolled around, his public image had already curdled, culminating in him flipping the bird to a Bethpage gallery that was mercilessly heckling him. (Sometimes the jeers turned into mockery, as when Sergio showed up for the final round of the 2006 Open Championship, and another showdown with Woods, in an all-yellow outfit. Overserved fans took to calling him both “Big Bird” and “Banana Man.”) Over the next decade and a half, Garcia did indeed manage to lift many trophies, but of course no majors. He had good health, immense wealth and a string of glamorous girlfriends, and yet he somehow became a tragic figure—what the British tabloids liked to call a “nearly man.”
It was when we finally gave up on Garcia that he became the player he was meant to be, winning the 2017 Masters in one of the grittiest, most satisfying performances ever. Decades from now they’ll be singing songs in Spanish taverns about Garcia’s par out of the hazard on the 13th on Sunday, and his flag-hunting approach shots on 15 and 18, to say nothing of the decisive birdie in sudden death. That putt caught a piece of the hole and tumbled in. Back in the old days, when Garcia saw himself as a dogged victim of inexorable fate, his ball would have done a power lip-out and trickled off the green.
Much was made at Augusta of how Garcia has been changed by his fiancée Angela Akins, the former Golf Channel talent. Her father Marty is an underrated part of the story. Just as Dustin Johnson is benefiting from the hard-won wisdom of his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, Garcia has fallen under the thrall of Marty, an All-American quarterback at the University of Texas who was such a schoolboy legend that LBJ personally recruited him on behalf of the Longhorns. On Saturday evening at this year’s Masters, I found Marty on a couch in the Augusta National locker room. He had tired of battling the crowds and was plopped in front of a large TV. “I want to see his eyes,” he said of Garcia. And what did his future son-in-law’s visage reveal? “I see confidence,” he told me. “He’s not afraid of anyone or anything.”
Where does Garcia go from here? Ben Hogan won eight majors after he turned 37. Phil Mickelson nabbed multiple majors at an advanced age. Maybe Garcia will go on a run to secure his place in the pantheon. Or maybe this Masters will be the exclamation point on a very good career. Either way, the man has already been made whole.