AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The collapse was coming.
You could feel it in the air of Amen Corner, almost as if it were lingering in the pines among the expensive cigar smoke. Maybe it wouldn't be a sudden and horrifying collapse like it was with Jordan Spieth at the 12th hole in 2016, but this one might be just as agonizing. Death by a thousand cuts. In the Masters gallery on Sunday afternoon, there was a sense of apprehension, then resignation.
Sergio Garcia was going to blow the Masters, just like he'd blown a half-dozen majors before this.
He'd just made messy bogeys the 10th and 11th holes, failed to hit it close on 12, and watched his drive clip a tree on the 13th and carom into the azalea bushes on the left side of Rae's Creek. Justin Rose, now up two strokes, looked like a machine, his ball in the middle of the fairway yet again. Garcia looked like a fragile man whose spirit had finally been broken. It felt like you could start fitting Rose for a jacket. For Garcia, it was all over but the sobbing.
And then ... it wasn't.
It turned out to be one of the great rope-a-dopes in golf history.
"I was very calm," Garcia said. "Much calmer than I've felt in probably any major championship on Sunday."
Maybe the narrative that Garcia didn't have the fortitude to win a big tournament was unfair, or at least overblown, but there was certainly plenty of evidence to support it. It's too simplistic to say that major winners thrive under pressure and weaker minds crumble in big moments. It's also ridiculous to suggest that nerves and attitude haven't held Garcia back and kept many athletes like him from reaching their potential over the years. The version of Sergio so many fans feel like they know would have essentially thrown in the towel at that moment, made a bogey or worse, and lamented another Sunday when things didn't go his way.
Instead we got one of the great finishing duels in Masters history.
How will you remember the 2017 tournament? I'll remember it, perhaps strangely, for the unplayable lie Garcia took in the azaleas at No. 13, and then the two perfect shots he hit to give himself an 8-foot par putt that he somehow made.
Without that moment of steely determination, which oddly came at the same time Rose began to spray his irons and drives like Sunday Sergio of old, we might never have the biggest shot of the tournament, Garcia's second shot into 15, which kissed the flagstick and came to rest in a spot where Garcia had a makeable eagle putt. Even Garcia conceded as much.
"I didn't hit that bad of a drive," Garcia said of his tee shot on 13. "I've been hitting that drive every day like a high cut. This drive was probably going three yards left of the ones I've hit the other three days, and unfortunately it hit the tree and went into the bush. In the past I would have said to my caddie, 'Why doesn't it go through?' But I was like, 'If that's what's supposed to happen, let it happen. Let's try to make a great five here and see if we can put a hell of a finish to have a chance. And if not, we'll shake Justin's hand and congratulate him for winning.'"
There was a time, actually not that long ago, when it was kind of fun to watch Garcia suffer. Watching him fold in so many big moments just reinforced the narrative of Tiger Woods' mental fortitude. A truly great player, like Woods, didn't give away tournaments. Watching him torment Garcia over the years was fun, especially when Garcia whined so many times about Woods getting preferential treatment, or when Garcia used racially coded language in a joke about having Woods over for dinner.
Yet if there is one thing we seem to enjoy more in sports than watching the weak-willed repeatedly flounder, it's the narrative of an athlete's eventual growth and breakthrough. If you'd said 10 years ago I'd one day stand in a crowd at the Masters that was almost universally pulling for Garcia to win, I'd have laughed in your face. There it was Sunday, the roars for the Spaniard as loud as ever as he kept putting the pressure on Rose. It felt, on the back nine, almost like match play. Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were almost two holes ahead at one point, and with each hole, the gallery following Rose and Garcia swelled, eventually reaching 10 patrons deep.
"You know, good for Sergio," Rose said, when asked what he thought about the gallery's surprising Garcia support. "Often he feels like he's not supported the way he would like to be in America, and it was encouraging to see the crowd get behind him. I think that they realized he paid his dues, and they realized he's been close so many times. Obviously people felt strongly it was his time."
It was hard not to get emotional for Garcia when he trickled in a birdie putt on the first playoff hole, then dropped to his knees and pounded his fist against the green. Garcia said he tried not to think too much about the fact that this win came on what would have been countryman Seve Ballesteros' 60th birthday, but during the trophy ceremony, he did take a glance at the sky and wag his finger appreciatively toward the heavens. Then Garcia hooked arms with his fiancée, Angela Akins, and began walking toward the clubhouse with the breezy stroll of man no longer weighed down by expectations.
Garcia has been open about the fact that his relationship with Akins is a big part of the newfound serenity he has acquired in the last couple years. Throughout the week, she kept leaving him notes on the mirror, inspirational quotes by everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Buddha, but one of the most prescient turned out to be one of her own: "Don't forget to be amazing today."
In the low evening light, as fans jostled for space and pushed up against the rope line to voice their newfound appreciation for Garcia, he kept fiddling with his green jacket buttons as he walked. He never broke stride, but every few steps, he adjusted them -- unbuttoning and rebuttoning them -- almost as if he wanted to make sure the feeling of wearing that jacket was real.