Michaux: Masters champion surprised by reaction of his peers

Sergio Garcia will shed – seemingly for the first time in a month – the green jacket today to play the so-called “fifth major” that once defined the pinnacle of his career.

 

After 18 years, however, Garcia no longer has to answer to being the greatest player without a real major. Who is?

“Not me,” Garcia said Wednesday on the eve of The Players Championship.

His dramatic Masters victory in a playoff duel with Justin Rose has changed everything for the Spaniard who has always worn his emotions on his sleeve.

And yet it’s changed nothing at all.

“I’ve been saying it, I’m still the same person,” Garcia said. “I always try to be true to myself and as genuine as I can be. … At the end of the day, the most important thing is to not change.”

Garcia has been taken aback by the outpouring of love he’s received since winning at Augusta National. But it isn’t the congratulations from folks on the street at his homes in Spain or Switzerland or the 90,000 soccer fans who raised the hairs on his neck when they chanted his name during the ceremonial kickoff at the El Clasico between his beloved Real Madrid and Barcelona that surprised him.

It was the reception he’s received from his peers, which he confessed has been “very touching.”

“It’s been amazing,” Garcia said. “There’s so many great things that have happened since Sunday at Augusta. You know, the support from fans and supporters and everyone around the world has been amazing.

“But for me, what has meant the most, it’s to see the reaction from the players … to see how happy they all have been for me to get my first major and win the Masters. That, to me, it shows me a lot. It shows me how much my fellow players respect me and care about me.

“It almost feels like they wanted me to win more than I did.”

Rory McIlroy talked Tuesday about racing back to his rental home in Augusta and crying when he watched the conclusion of Garcia’s victory on television. He greeted Sergio with “the biggest bear hug” when he first saw him turn up as a guest at McIlroy’s wedding three weeks ago.

“Just to see what he’s been through, and his struggles, and for it to be there … I mean, I’m getting goosebumps even talking about it,” McIlroy said. “Sergio is a good friend of mine, he means a lot to me. It was a great story. I don’t think it could have really went any better than it did.”

That reaction speaks to the highs and lows – and so many of those lows on the major stages – that have defined Garcia’s public image for nearly two decades spent almost constantly among the world’s top 20 players. He’s been jeered at the U.S. Open and booed in Ryder Cups, but Garcia always fought his way back from even his darkest moments.

All those dues that he paid showed in how invested the fans were late Sunday at Augusta, ultimately chanting “Ser-Gi-O” around the 18th green before he delivered the ultimate exorcism of his so many near misses.

“I could feel how hard they wanted me to win and I could feel that energy from them,” Garcia told the Golf Channel. “On 15 when I made that eagle putt and I heard them roar, those things are priceless and you can’t buy that. It was just so special to be able to feel that connection with the people there.”

Garcia admits that all the speed bumps and setbacks along the way to his Masters moment made it all the more special when it finally happened.

“It definitely was” worth the wait, he said. “I’m not going to lie, I would have loved to win one of them earlier. But having to wait 18 years, as we have, and to be able to do it now I think that probably I respect it a lot more than if I would have won it on my third or fourth try.”

Garcia and his fiance – former Golf Channel reporter Angela Akins – keep catching themselves in quiet moments still pinching each other and whispering, “We won the Masters.”

That will fully sink it at 1:41 p.m. Thursday on the first tee at TPC Sawgrass when he is introduced as – not only the 2008 Players champion – the Masters champion.

“I’d love to tell you what it’s going to feel like, but I won’t know until Thursday,” he said. “I’m excited, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m sure a lot of things will go through my mind about that week and stuff, but it’s a great thing to have.”

Garcia returns, at 37 years old, to what amounts to a new phase in his career.

“It was either retire or keep going,” he said with a laugh.

Wearing the green jacket in a sit-down interview with former tour pro Frank Nobilo, Garcia’s enthusiasm was apparent.

The combination of pride, relief and satisfaction have mixed to reveal a growing confidence in a player who once claimed he didn’t have what it takes to win a major.

Now he wants more.

“It’s not over,” he said. “I feel like I have even more room for improvement. There’s still many more things we can achieve. It’s great to have one already and to be (the Masters) it’s even more special. But we’re not done here.”

 

More