AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Wednesday morning at his annual “state of the Masters” news conference, Masters and Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne said this:
“I have no doubt that history will place its own special mark on the 81st playing of the Masters.”
At the time it sounded a bit like Chamber of Commerce hyperbole, especially considering the monsoons that raked the course Monday and would again the day he spoke.
But Payne turned out to be prescient. The storm clouds blew away — they had no choice, really, as winds gusted to near tropical storm force Thursday and Friday. What was left in their place was the kind of emotional, dramatic, sentimental, satisfying to the bone kind of event that makes the Masters the Masters.
It started with farewell.
Arnold Palmer died Sept. 25, but it seemed it took Masters week more than six months later to truly complete the circle of necessary tributes to one of the greatest figures in American sports history.
You’d have to be a jerk if you didn’t find Thursday’s ceremonial starting ceremony a tear-jerker. Payne accompanied Palmer’s widow Kit to the first tee and draped Arnie’s green jacket over a chair.
Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, the remaining members of golf’s “Big Three,” wiped away their tears, Jack lifted his cap to the sky, and they opened the tournament by smacking a couple of drives into the first fairway. Everyone who attended that day got a button that says, “I AM A MEMBER of ‘ARNIE’S ARMY.' ” It’s a keepsake, like the man, that’s something to cherish.
With Palmer properly honored, the stage was left to a younger generation, led by the seemingly forever star-crossed Sergio Garcia.
More than a decade ago, I stood behind Garcia as he crushed a drive up the eighth fairway. I figured, like everyone including Sergio, there was no way he couldn’t win multiple majors, multiple Masters.
But life and golf began to beat up the prodigy, and he began to be plagued by self-doubt. He seemed to be looking for a reason to lose, and always it was someone else’s fault. After one particularly demoralizing round at Augusta a few years ago, he woefully said he’d have to learn to settle for second or third place.
This time was different. The man was different. This Sergio seems to be happy in his life — he’s engaged to Golf Channel reporter Angela Akins, Drew Brees’ cousin. And still chasing that elusive first major, he appeared equipped to accept the result of what turned out to be a thrilling match play showdown over the final round with former U.S. Open and Zurich Classic of New Orleans champion Justin Rose.
“I knew I was playing well,” Garcia said. “I was very calm, much calmer than I've felt probably in any major championship on Sunday.”
Garcia overcame both the ghosts of major championships past and the gold medal-worthy play of Rose (he won the gold in the Rio Olympics last summer) to prevail in a one-hole playoff. He curled in a birdie on 18 that eluded him moments earlier in regulation while Rose, who found a thorny lie when he blocked his tee shot right into a magnolia tree, could only make bogey.
“I knew what I was capable of doing,” Garcia said. “And I believed.”
If there was a sour note to the tournament, it was the clunky final round of the top two American contenders: 2015 Masters winner Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
They teed off one group ahead of Garcia and Rose, Fowler one off the lead at 5-under-par and Spieth two back at 4-under. But when they stepped on the gas, there was nothing there. Fowler got to 6-under with a birdie at No. 3 but frittered away five strokes to par after that to finish at 1-under. Spieth also wound up at 1-under, knocking another tee ball in the water at 12 in an astounding reprise of the tee shot and pitch shot he dunked into Rae’s Creek last year, costing him a lead he would never recover.
With Garcia’s green jacket measurements now with Augusta National’s tailors, the unwanted mantle of world’s best golfer without a major probably falls to the immensely popular and likable Fowler. It’s a burden that can consume a player. Just ask Garcia, who at 37 finally found a way to relax under major championship pressure and let his biggest win come to him.
The win redeemed Garcia. The tournament confirmed what we already knew about the Masters. More than likely, it’s going to produce one of the most memorable weeks of the sports year.