AUGUSTA, Ga. — Prior to competing in his first Masters Tournament as an amateur, 18 long years ago, Sergio Garcia played a Tuesday practice round at Augusta National. One of his playing partners that day was a player he would spend much of the next decade chasing, sometimes quite literally, Tiger Woods. The other was one of his heroes, Seve Ballesteros.
When asked the next day to explain Ballesteros’ influence on his career, the bright-eyed, peach-fuzzed Garcia replied, “He has been like almost a second dad. He has taken care of me at the British Open twice and in Augusta, we played some practice rounds. … He has really helped me a lot.”
Perhaps it’s coincidence that Garcia’s 18-year-long struggle against the golf gods, his seemingly insurmountable fight to exorcise the demons of major championships gone by, culminated in a hard-fought Masters victory on what would have been the 60th birthday of the man simply known as Seve, who passed away six years ago.
Or maybe it was something more. Maybe it was karma. Or fate. Or destiny. His green jacket loosely affixed to his shoulders — “This one is a little bit too big,” he joked — Garcia stood up after the trophy ceremony and in the early-evening twilight, pointed toward the heavens. He was thinking of Seve.
“It definitely popped in my mind a few times, there’s no doubt about it,” he said of the birthday. “I’m sure he helped a little bit with some of those shots or some of those putts.”
A five-time major champion, Ballesteros was the game’s greatest magician, a man who could get up-and-down for par from a flower bed or a parking lot. Garcia’s final round on Sunday wasn’t quite vintage Seve, but it was close. He hit wayward tee shots that left him in proverbial jail. He hit brilliant recovery shots that oozed Seve’s spirit.
In the end, it was a 12-foot birdie attempt that defeated Justin Rose in a playoff. The delicate putt caught the low side of the cup and inexplicably dropped into it. Almost as if he’d received a little help.
Not long afterward, Garcia’s father, Victor, stood behind the Augusta National clubhouse, furiously pumping his arms into the sky, his face overwhelmed with emotion.
“Seve, Seve, today is the 60th birthday of Seve if he was alive,” he screamed. “[Eighteen] years ago, that was the first time I caddied here for him and [Jose Maria] Olazabal won. Today, 19 years later, it’s Sergio, on the birthday of Severiano.”
No story of Sergio’s reverence for Seve is complete without also including his adoration for Olazabal. Each of them two-time Masters champions, Garcia is quick to mention the other when asked only about one of them.
Earlier this week, prior to the opening round, Olazabal left a note for his mentee.
“You know what you have to do,” it read. “Just believe in yourself.”
Garcia thought about Ballesteros during that final round, but he also thought about Olazabal, who had missed the cut, but was buzzing around the course throughout the day.
“He and Seve are both my golfing idols since I was very, very little,” Garcia said. “He did mention a couple of things that kind of touched my heart a little bit.”
As if he needed more inspiration, Olazabal offered an additional serving.
“I’m not sharing my locker at the moment,” he continued, speaking of his place in the champions’ locker room. “I hope that I get to do it with you.”
Garcia has already started an earnest plea to the powers-that-be at Augusta National that he take up the vacant spot with Olazabal, one which should be an easy request to accommodate.
He is now the third Spaniard to claim a green jacket, joining the two players who most influenced his career. It has been a long time coming for Garcia, after so much heartache at so many majors.
It has been so long that when Garcia was asked after the victory what he remembers of that first practice round with Ballesteros, he pauses and shakes his head.
“To be totally honest, I can’t remember it that well,” he said. “I can’t really remember some of the things we talked about, because I’m getting old.”
With those words, he smiled. A big, bright smile. The type of smile we’d never before seen from him after the finish of a major championship.