Masters 2017: Is Sergio Garcia winning at Augusta the perfect sporting story?

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Masters 2017: Why Sergio Garcia's win was so special

"I'm not good enough. I don't have the thing I need to have. I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place."

Sport is supposed to be all about unbreakable self-belief and unshakeable mental fortitude. Vulnerabilities are tucked away for dark private moments with family and coaches, or alone with nothing for company but demons and deep regret.

In public you are always good enough. You are there because you have that thing. Admitting you are weak is the biggest weakness of all.

When Sergio Garcia made those comments at Augusta, five years ago after 13 seasons of not-quites and might-have-beens, it both subverted the protocol and confirmed what lots of people feared anyway: the kid who began as El Nino was destined to play out his career as El Nearly-Man, a beautiful ball-striker but imperfect with his putter, indomitable in Ryder Cup but fragile in the final-day shootouts in strokeplay, loved for those flaws and the anguish they brought him as much as others were admired for cold-eyed closing out of the biggest moments.

Sergio Garcia
Nearly two decades of hurt is released in a scream of pure emotion as Sergio Garcia sinks the putt that wins him the Masters

Seventy-three appearances at majors. Four times a runner-up. Twelve top fives, 22 top tens, a habitual bridesmaid who could be relied upon to drop the bouquet every time it was thrown his way.

You play every shot with Garcia when you're watching him, his hopes and doubts and fears running across his face and through his body language. Which is why, when he birdied the first hole of his final round on Sunday to go a shot clear of Justin Rose at the top of the Masters leaderboard, and then rolled in an eight-foot birdie on the fourth to go two clear, it felt less like a march towards victory than a man climbing a ladder he will shortly fall off.

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Garcia wins play-off to take Green Jacket

Going into Sunday, Garcia was a cumulative 35 over par on Augusta National's back nine in his 18 previous appearances. Rose was an aggregate 11 under.

As they went to the turn, there were those watching at home wondering if they should turn off their televisions, go to bed and just live the rest of their lives pretending Garcia had won. It would be easier that way. Inevitably, the Spaniard then bogeyed the 10th, stuck his tee shot on the 11th behind a pine tree and then went deep into the azalea bushes on the 13th.

Different day, customary script. Rose all control and precision, no emotion visible behind sunglasses and cap and dark clothing; Garcia with a desperation in his eyes, face pale from sunblock, grimacing and twitching and going down in flames.

Sergio Garcia at the 1999 US PGA Championship
Sergio Garcia struck a memorable shot from behind a tree at the 1999 US PGA Championship, in which he finished second just four months after turning professional

Two shots down, out to 10-1 with the bookies, playing for second or third place once again.

When Garcia first came close at a major, there was joy in his eventual defeat. While he lost the 1999 US PGA Championship to Tiger Woods, his shot from behind a tree on the 16th and the chase he gave it - dashing down the fairway, jumping high to see if it had somehow made the green - spoke of certain promise and special talent as much as it did his compatriot and mentor Seve Ballesteros.

As the teenager became a man, the exuberance and expectations fell away. At Hoylake in 2006, he began the final round of The Open in the final pairing with Woods a shot back only to finish seven behind, Woods relentless in red, Garcia's pastel lemon outfit as faded as his form. The following year at Carnoustie it was worse by a margin: in the lead after all of the first three rounds, three shots clear of second going into the final day, three bogeys in four holes throwing that away, missing an eight-foot putt on the 18th for the win, losing the subsequent four-hole playoff with Padraig Harrington by a single painful stroke.

Sergio Garcia
"The habitual bridesmaid who could be relied upon to drop the bouquet every time it was thrown his way" - until this year

And so it went on. The US PGA Championship, 2008, sticking his second shot on the 16th on the final Sunday into the water to hand Harrington another golden moment, joint runner-up at Hoylake in 2014 as Rory McIlroy turned his own youthful promise into record-breaking success.

Over those years Garcia went from youngest swinger in town towards comfortable middle age: hair shorter and thinner, irons still pristine, putter still cold as often as hot. So much to his game, that thing, that undefinable difference, still never there.

Until Sunday. From the drop-zone on the 13th he scrambled an unlikely par. At the 14th his approach brought a birdie; another outrageous iron on the 15th led to a first eagle for the Spaniard at Augusta in 452 holes.

On the par-three 16th, his US rivals Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler falling away and forgotten up ahead, he struck his tee shot to six feet. Rose, alone alongside him at nine under, fired his own over the fringes of the green to eight.

Seve Ballesteros and Sergio Garcia at the 1996 Open Championship
Garcia played in the 1996 Open Championship as a 16-year-old amateur, where he practised alongside mentor Seve Ballesteros

Rose's putt curled to the cup and then, almost with a sigh, dropped in. Garcia's fell apologetically off the club-face and dribbled wide, a two-second study in doubt and trepidation. Not good enough. Playing for second or third.

On the 18th, a more bountiful chance still: Rose back level after wobbling on the penultimate green, his own birdie putt ghosting past the lip, Garcia with a straight four-footer to end it all.

Started right, stayed right. The thing, condensed into a single shot, one putt that could haunt a man for a lifetime ahead.

Sport isn't fair. There is no karmic rebalancing to reward the unlucky or the pleasant. You looked at Garcia, eyes clenched shut, behind him a spectator with his arms outstretched and palms turned upwards in disbelief, and you thought you saw a man stuck in his own cruel destiny, desperate for victory but almost scared to seize it, not embracing that defining moment but wanting it all over as soon as possible.

And you were wrong. For this time, on this day, Garcia would be the one to stay strong. Rose into the pine straw with his tee shot on the first sudden-death play-off hole, Garcia crushing his drive, firing his approach to eight feet.

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Masters 2017: Sergio Garcia receives Masters Green Jacket

Two putts for the title, only one needed. A near-perfect sporting story, and the perfect Sergio way to win it - leading, collapsing, coming back, blowing it, rallying, a nerveless putt.

The week before Garcia's first Open as a professional, 18 years ago at Carnoustie, I was sent to the east coast of Scotland to interview him for a now-defunct magazine called Total Sport. He was 19, considered to be part Tiger, part Seve, the hottest talent in town, a story every journalist wanted to write.

I drove a day to get there and arrived an hour early for our 7.30am rendezvous. When there was no sign of him at 8am, I sent the first text. At 8.30am I phoned. At 9am I tried both again.

At 10am I had hope, at 11am some anger, at midday an intense hunger and thirst. Staying until 3pm made little sense, but I did it anyway. I may as well have done. Carnoustie on a Sunday offers limited alternative entertainment.

That eight-hour wait in a cold marquee came, over the next decade, to define how I thought of Garcia: enough talent to drive the length of a country to witness, a habitual inability to deliver on a promise, enough charm to leave your opinion of his character unaltered.

1999 to 2017 seems a long time to wait for anyone. But at last Garcia has delivered.