BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, MICH. — This may have been Sergio Garcia’s finest hour. Why? Because we left the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills after an alternately sunny and squally Sunday afternoon knowing two things without a shadow of a doubt:
One. Sergio is the best player in the world who hasn’t won a major. This is a compliment, proof that he stands head and shoulders above golf’s major-challenged elite. Of all the would-be major champions, none have had so many brushes with historic titles as Sergio. He has nine top-five finishes in majors, almost all with a realistic chance to win, and 14 top-10 showings. Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley and the rest have had little more than a sniff of a green jacket or a claret jug or a big shiny trophy.
Two. Sergio has what it takes to win major. He’s going to do it, and he’s going to do it more than once. He showed again at Oakland Hills that he’s got the game, the toughness and the heart to get it done. Most important, perhaps, he showed he’s finally got a putting stroke that’s not going to cave in under pressure. His back-nine play was a clinic in lag-putting (which usually spells victory at Oakland Hills and U.S. Opens). Yes, he missed a crucial birdie at the par-3 17th, but it wasn’t a tentative, gag-stroke-induced miss. He aimed this four-footer at the left edge of the cup, he rolled it at the left edge of the cup and the ball simply did not break. It was just another Oakland Hills mystery.
Yet another close call for Sergio, who tied for second with Ben Curtis, was a disappointment. But his closing scores of 69-68 on one of golf’s most famous killer courses, and the clutch shots he hit under pressure, were also an affirmation. At 28, he is ready to start hauling in championships, maybe even in bunches like Padraig Harrington, who has now captured three of the last six, including two in a row. Harrington suddenly has the formula down pat — get into contention, shoot 32 on the back nine Sunday in difficult conditions (it worked at Royal Birkdale last month) and, oh yeah, roll in practically every putt you look at.
Sergio is close, despite his 0-for-41 mark in majors. Phil was hounded for being 0-for-42 once upon a time, then quickly picked up three major titles, the first coming at age 33. Sergio is in a similar position but considerably younger at 28. He is closer to breaking through than you might think. If Harrington hadn’t rolled in unlikely par putts on two of the last three holes Sunday, Garcia might have won fairly easily.
“There are guys who get in contention and get a little fortunate and things go their way,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened to me. I feel like I’ve played well enough to win more than two majors throughout my career.”
Better still, a more controlled Sergio offered hardly any sour grapes this time around. He famously whined after last year’s playoff loss to Harrington at Carnoustie that he had to beat more than just the other 155 players in the field. He may be right that the golfing gods are holding a grudge against him. Then again, his PGA runner-up result can be explained by two things: Harrington posted 32 on the final nine to Sergio’s 37; Sergio putted well, Harrington putted exceptionally.
“I really felt I putted great and just had a couple of putts that didn’t want to go in,” Garcia said. “You can’t do anything about that.”
He slightly pulled his birdie putt at 15 (after a sensational recovery shot from the right rough), he said, the only putt he felt was sub-par.
There were potential defining moments throughout this final round, but Garcia wasn’t victorious, so they’ll remain only moments. You could start with the 9-iron shot he stiffed to four feet at the second hole for an eagle that vaulted him into second place. There was a slick, downhill six-footer to save par at the ninth, the kind of putt the old Sergio used to miss.
The famed par-4 16th was where Garcia let Harrington get the edge. Hitting first from the fairway, 176 yards from the dangerous and water-guarded green, Garcia was a little too aggressive, perhaps the curse of having total confidence in his swing. He left a touch of fade on the shot and the wind pushed it right. The ball landed in the greenside rough, just past the yellow hazard line, spun back and rolled over the rock wall and into the water. From the drop zone, Sergio played one of the best shots of his round, a dicey 51-yard pitch over the water again. After Harrington pounded in his wild putt to save par, Sergio made his for bogey.
Another moment. Harrington stuck his 5-iron shot 10 feet left of the pin on the 216-yard, par-3 17th, a stunning display of pressure golf. Garcia topped him with his own 5-iron shot, stopping it five feet right of the cup. Sergio clenched his fist, set his jaw and actually took a few running steps as he came off the tee box. He was excited. Had he won the PGA, this shotmaking moment would’ve had a long shelf-life. Instead, Harrington made his birdie putt and took the lead for good when Sergio missed his.
The last moment. Harrington had an awkward stance in a fairway bunker after his tee shot on 18, Sergio had an awkward stance in the rough next to the bunker. Playing first from 226 yards uphill, Sergio hit a superb 5-wood shot that splashed near the top of the greenside front bunker. Five feet longer or five feet to the right, and Sergio probably has a birdie opportunity or at least a solid par. Instead, he had a difficult bunker shot. When Harrington holed another putt for one of the most remarkable par saves you’ll ever see on the 72nd hole of a major, he was the champion.
One thing has me thinking maybe Sergio was right about those unseen forces he has to battle. His approach shot at the 15th was dead on. Too much so. It clanged off the stick and then, apparently, off the bottom of the cup before bouncing out to the left, leaving him a six-footer for birdie. Sergio put both hands on his cap and stared in disbelief. He missed the putt and settled for par.
“I guess I should have had my caddie take the pin out,” he said later, making a joke.
At Carnoustie last year, his approach shot hit the flagstick on the second hole of his playoff with Harrington and caromed off the green. He bemoaned his bad luck and the fates then. This time, he made another weak joke. “At least it stayed on the green,” he said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t stay in the cup.”
Call it progress. On his walk back to the clubhouse after a series of post-loss interviews, Sergio smiled as he talked with a friend and signed autographs. When he neared the clubhouse, he came to a set of cement steps. He bounded up them two at a time. The Masters is eight months away — hold this metaphoric moment until then.