Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sergio finally Gets His "Major!"

I remember the day almost as if it was yesterday. It was the morning of July 22, 2007 as Sergio Garcia looked poised to get the monkey of his back and win the first major of his career. A four stroke lead early in the final round of the British Open, only to see it evaporate courtesy of a balky putter. A heartbreaking lip-out of a 10 foot putt to win the tournament on the 72nd hole extended the major to a four hole playoff where Sergio lost to Padrig Harrington by two strokes. With the loss, Sergio's reputation as the "best player in the world to not win a major" grew. Would he ever win "the big one?" How would he bounce back from such a tough loss?

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon in Ponde Vidra, Florida, the site of golf's so-called "fifth major," the Players Championship. The leader at the end of the third round was an unheralded journeyman named Paul Goydos at 7-under par, with nine time tour winner, 47 year-old Kenny Perry a stroke back. Sergio sat in third at 4-under par, with another journeyman (Jeff Quinney) and defending Players champion Phil Mickelson lurking five strokes back at 2-under par. Perhaps more important than the position of the leaders was the weather forecast: wind, and lots of it. When I saw that forecast, I made two quick mental notes: Sergio with his vast experience in playing in inclement/windy conditions would likely be a serious contender. Mickelson, with his deft short game and high ball flight would most likely not be a factor.

Sergio got off to a rocky start in round four, bogeying his first hole. Fortunately for him, those ahead were also stumbling. Goydos bogeyed 2 & 3, while Perry bogeyed two of his first four holes. Mickelson double-bogeyed his first hole and was never a factor, ballooning to a 7-over par 78 in the tough conditions. Sergio continued to hang close to the leaders, posting a 37 on the front nine to lie at 3-under, only two strokes back. Perry was at 4-under par through his first nine, but things began to unravel for him soon after that. Bogeys on 10 and 11 dropped him to 2-under par. Then, a disastrous triple bogey 7 after knocking a ball into the water on the par-4 15th hole ended his chances. Perry would finish the day with a 9-over-par 81, and tied for 15th.

As his playing partner Perry fell out of contention, Goydos almost gained command of the tournament. Birdies on 10 and 12 got him to 7-under par, right where he began the final round. Sergio had birdied 11 and 12 himself moments earlier to get to 5-under par. A bogey on 13 pushed him back to 4-under par, but he righted the ship with a long birdie putt at 14 to get to 5-under par. Under the radar, Quinney made some waves on the closing nine. Birdies at 11,13 and 16 got him to 5-under par as well. It had become a three horse race. Goydos though then had some struggles of his own, bogeying both 14 and 15 to fall to 5-under par. He did right the ship though, with a birdie on 16 to get back to 6-under par.

As the players approached the 18th hole, they all basically knew what they needed to do. Sergio and Quinney both found the rough with their tee shots. Sergio's ball found some VERY deep rough and it took all of his strength to punch the ball out into the fairway to give himself at least an opportunity to get up and down for par. Quinney's approach found the bunker at the back of the green. With a horrible lie, it was pretty much a guaranteed bogey for him. Sergio then pulled off two of the best shots he's ever hit. His approach shot stoppped about seven feet behind the pin and he made a confident stroke with his putter and found the bottom of the cup. Quinney's 4-under total put him in third place. Sergio was in the clubhouse with a 1-under par 71 and a 5-under par total.

Goydos simply needed to par the 18th hole to win, but his tee shot found the rough as well. He hacked out to about 50 yards from the green, and then chunked his approach shot to 15 feet under the hole. His par putt never had a chance, and with the bogey, he finished at 5-under par as well and fell into a sudden death playoff with Sergio.

For only the second time in tournament history, the Players Championship was going to a playoff. And there could not be a more appropriate place to begin a playoff than the famous island green of the 17th hole. It's 128 yards of sheer terror. With the winds gusting, a little luck was a necessity if you wanted to escape with a score of par. Both Goydos and Sergio escaped it the first time on Sunday with pars, Sergio's shot barely staying dry as he two-putted from the fringe 45 feet away.

In the playoff, Goydos won the draw and hit first. As the ball came off his club, it looked good, but as has happened so many times over the years, a gust of wind ballooned his shot and caused it to drift right and short. Goydos had found the water. All Sergio would need to do is find the land to secure the tournament. Much easier said than done as I'm sure you know. Well, Sergio hit what can arguably be called the shot of his life, landing his ball just to the right of the center of the green 20 feet away and then having it trickle with the aid of the wind to within 4 1/2 feet of the hole. Finally, the demons could be exercised. Two putts later, Sergio claimed his first "major" title and the $1,710,000 paycheck that went with it.

Even though he's only 28 years old, Sergio Garcia has been through a lot in his career. Will he be the next to challenge Tiger Woods? Well, I'm not sure if he's there yet. As he accepted the 2008 winner's trophy from Mickelson he said "thank you Tiger for not playing this week." Everyone in the gallery got a kick out of that comment... One thing though was very evident though throughout the day... The joy that the 19 year-old kid displayed in almost winning the 1999 PGA Championship (won by Woods over him by a single stroke) was back! On Sunday, he made the important putts - six of them being eight feet or longer. He pumped his fist confidently each and every time he made a putt. For those of us who have seen him go through so much, it was so nice to see him FINALLY triumph. Congratulations to Sergio on a great tournament and win!


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