Date: April 12, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: A talent finally fulfilled

In the hot English summer of 2006, Tiger Woods put on one of the great displays of iron play in a major championship.

With his driver as unreliable as a cheap watch, Woods took Hoylake apart with long irons from the tee and perfectly played middle irons into the greens. He made Ernie Els look almost second rate on the Saturday and then teed up alongside a fully yellow-clad Sergio Garcia on Sunday.

Garcia suffered as Els had the previous day, three-putting nervously at the beginning of the round and Woods walked away with the Claret Jug after barely a breath wasted on the threat from Garcia.

Tiger’s relationship with the Spaniard had been fraught from very early on in their careers and he messaged a friend saying: “I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird.”

The two had fought out a PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999 when Woods recovered from some shaky play near the end with a perfectly played final hole to beat his then 19-year-old rival by a shot. It was obvious Tiger was going to be a truly significant player, but the assumption was Garcia, too, would win big championships for many years.

Instead he lost them, in part because just as for Els and Phil Mickelson, his best play coincided with Woods’ finest and those championship days almost always ended one way.

Woods, though, wasn’t a constant presence and with chances to win The Open at Carnoustie in 2007and a PGA at Oakland Hills in 2008, Garcia lost out twice to Padraig Harrington.

The Irishman wasn’t Woods, but he was good and knew how to take his chance when it came along. Garcia, petulantly, tried some childish gamesmanship on Harrington, which inevitably led to ill-feeling between the pair.

"I was as polite as I could and I was as generous as I could be, but he was a very sore loser. And he continued to be a very sore loser," Harrington said of the Spaniard.

"I'm very strong on the etiquette of the game so I don't tolerate people spitting in the hole, throwing their shoes or their golf clubs. That would be my attitude. That would be quite clear from where I came from."

Garcia later bemoaned his chances of ever winning a big championship suggesting nonsensically after the 2012 Masters: “I’m not good enough and now I know it. I don’t know what happens to me. I will try to be second or third … you can live without a major.”

Right after a poor round is never a time to get much sense out of a professional golfer, so Sergio could be forgiven. But there wasn’t a contemporary who didn’t recognise him as one of the premier shot-makers and arguably the finest driver of the ball on tour.

Surely, given his skills, he would stumble across a major championship somewhere. Plenty of others with lesser games had.

This week others were more favoured but the most likely, Dustin Johnson, didn’t even get to the first tee after falling down stairs on Wednesday night. Jordan Spieth had an eighty-yard pitch into the 15th on the first day and made a nine. Amazingly he played his way into the second last group on Sunday but ultimately nine is a very haunting number to carry and a final 75 left him far down.

Jason Day played his way out of it before the weekend and Adam Scott seemed to be remarkably good at hitting beautiful looking putts right across the edges of the holes. And, even though he finished in fourth place, not everyone knows how good Belgium’s Thomas Pieters is quite yet and no one except Fuzzy Zoeller wins the first time around Augusta.

Rickie Fowler was out with Spieth one group ahead of Garcia and Justin Rose, but if it had been a four-ball Ryder Cup match, the American pair wouldn’t have made it past the 14th hole so uninspired was their play compared to the Europeans in the final pair.

Garcia got ahead early, Rose came back with three birdies from the 6th and then two poor drives cost Garcia bogeys at the 10th and 11th.

Rose, two ahead, saw his opponent drive at the 13th and it looked a distinct possibility that the Englishman would be four ahead by the 14th tee. Instead, Garcia scrapped out a five after a drop, a pitch-out followed by a pitch across the creek and a nice putt while Rose took three from the back.

A reprieved Garcia made three at the 14th and then hit the pin with an eight iron second at the par-five 15th. The subsequent eagle tied him with Rose, but it would be the last decent putt he would hit. From there until the 73rd hole he would have to do it with great shots.

Rose holed from 10 feet at the 16th, while Garcia meekly lost a left-to-right six-footer for a birdie under the hole. One ahead again, Rose came up short in the bunker at the 17th and failed to get up and down and they went to the final tee dead even.

Both drove perfectly and followed with equally good irons; Rose’s left him with the Tom Weiskopf 1975 putt and he hit exactly the same putt with exactly the same result and a lifetime of wondering just how the ball didn’t edge just a dimple or two further left.

It left the stage to Garcia who, from five feet for the win, hit an awful shove off to the right. He said it was where he tried to hit it, but no one surely believed him. Golfers always view their own putts with unreasonable optimism even when the whole world can see them going somewhere else.

Back at the 73rd tee, Rose drove right into the trees to leave a gaping hole for Garcia to walk right through and he did precisely that with two perfect long shots, the second an iron to 12 feet. Rose had half a chance from 20 feet for the four, and when he missed Garcia trickled his putt all the way to the edge of the hole and saw it accidentally fall in the edge.

He had finally bludgeoned all the doubt with a stream of properly struck shots and it was the fulfilment of an uncommon talent.