Sergio Garcia is the Masters champion, and he says nothing has changed.
That’s not entirely true.
He returns to Augusta National as a husband, having married Angela Akins last summer. He will have a slightly larger entourage with him, most notably a daughter born three weeks ago who will always remind him of the Masters, its beauty and his resiliency. They named her Azalea.
And he has Tuesday night plans unlike any other as host of the Champions Dinner.
But that’s it.
He’ll swear by that.
“I feel very proud for being able to win a major, and to win the Masters on top of that,” Garcia said. “But you know, like what they all tell me: `Has it changed your life?’ I don’t think and I don’t feel like it has. I’m still doing the same things. … It’s something that until it happens, you don’t know what it’s going to feel like and what it’s going to do to you. But on my regard, I’m happy that I don’t feel it has changed me. I don’t feel like I’m better than I was before.”
That’s mainly because all the change took place before he won the Masters.
No one ever had to wait longer – 70 majors as a pro, starting with an 89 in his first round at Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open – to capture that first major. Few others were teased quite like Garcia, whether it was that back-nine battle with Tiger Woods at age 19 or the playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007.
As the years passed, as gray speckles showed up in his beard, the outlook shifted from when he would win his first major to if it would ever happen.
And then it happened.
His wife always thought their first child should be named on the occasion of his first major, and as Garcia said to the Augusta Chronicle, “I hoped it wasn’t Shinnecock,” a reference to the U.S. Open course this summer.
“Firethorn” would have been a peculiar choice to name any child, much less a daughter. That’s an evergreen shrub and the name of the 15th hole at Augusta National, where Garcia hit an 8-iron that nicked the flag and set up a 12-foot eagle putt to tie for the lead.
Holly is the name for the 18th hole where Garcia holed a 12-foot birdie putt in the playoff to defeat Justin Rose, a moment seared into Masters lore when he crouched on the green in a moment of reflection and then pounded the turf with his fist in a mixture of joy and redemption.
He settled on Azalea, the flower that so many associate with spring at Augusta National and the Masters.
It’s also the name of the 13th hole, where so much changed for the Spaniard.
To have seen Garcia over the last year, inside the ropes when he’s competing and outside the ropes when he’s speaking freely, is to realize he has not changed all that much. The reason he is the Masters champion is all the change that took place before he won.
And that was never clearer than on the 13th hole of the final round.
Tied at the turn, Garcia dropped shots on the 10th and 11th holes, and everyone could feel this Masters slipping away, just like so many other majors. On the par-5 13th, Garcia’s tee shot clipped trees along the left and instead of the ball bouncing back toward the fairway, it dropped left on the other side of the Rae’s Creek tributary and into a bush. His only choice was to take a penalty drop and punch back to the fairway.
The best he could hope for was par. Rose was in position to make birdie at worst.
But that wasn’t the end. That was the beginning, all because Garcia learned to change his outlook from “what now?” to “what’s next?”
“Funny enough, most other weeks I would have been thinking: `Here we go. What’s going on?’ Obviously, I wasn’t happy,” Garcia said. “But from there, the most important thing was that I felt calm. That calmness gave me confidence. I was like: `It’s OK. You’re doing everything right. You’re playing great. It’s your time.’
“I just kept believing.”
Both made par, which shifted momentum, and this time the winning putt belonged to Garcia.
No small measure of credit goes to his wife, whom he met when she worked at Golf Channel. She brought positive energy to a talent who had so many negative memories.
“I remember a year before the Masters, being at Augusta with Sergio and talking about particular things that I thought he should work on,” she said. “I remember he was talking about how somebody had gotten lucky and he had gotten unlucky. We talked about how you can’t control that. You’re just wasting your energy. He’s gotten so much better than that. In golf, you get bad breaks all the time. And you get good breaks.”
His ball could have hit the pin on the 15th and bounced back into the water, like what happened with Woods in 2013.
It didn’t on this day.
“And if it had,” she said, “I think Sergio would have just accepted it.”
Garcia has won twice since then, in Spain and in Singapore. He has yet to win another major, and the effort – and disappointment – is no less because he has a green jacket. He returns to Augusta National with more than memories of what can go wrong.
He made peace with the golf course last year during that poignant moment when he crouched on the 18th green. Mostly, he made peace with himself.
“It’s something special. It’s always an honor to have that in your career,” he said of his new status as a major champion. “I want to keep getting better, practicing hard, working hard. … But other than that, it hasn’t changed that much. Because I loved my life the way it was before.”