BY DOUG FERGUSON
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Sergio Garcia, finally a major champion, already wants to change his equipment.
It’s a tiny change, and a most appropriate one.
Standing on the 15th green Wednesday at The Players Championship, the Masters champion turned to TaylorMade tour manager Keith Sbarbaro and said, “What’s the ETA on the golf ball?” It will be the same ball with the same number — 49, to honor the year his mother was born.
Garcia just wants the number to be green, the color of the jacket he won last month at Augusta National, the one he has taken everywhere.
The 37-year-old Spaniard had played 71 majors in his professional career without winning one, and to see the emotion burst out of him when he made the final birdie putt to win the Masters in a playoff over Justin Rose made it clear how much it meant to him.
The four weeks that followed showed Garcia how much it meant to everyone else.
“I cried,” Rory McIlroy said. “The first time I saw him was when he got into our wedding on Friday night. I gave him the biggest bear hug. Just to see what he’s been through, and his struggles, and for it to be there.”
McIlroy paused and started rubbing his right arm.
“I’m getting goosebumps even talking about it,” McIlroy said.
The highlight for Garcia was Santiago Bernabeu, the stadium for his beloved Real Madrid where Garcia was invited to do the ceremonial opening kickoff for El Clasico against Barcelona.
Garcia has been playing the Ryder Cup since 1999, three of them on European soil. He knows loud. After he won the Masters, he was serenaded with the constant chants of “Ser-gee-oh!”
“But to walk on what I think is the best stadium in the world … and to have 90,000 people chanting your name, that was extremely special,” he said. “And I was nervous. Yeah, and I was only kicking the ball 15 yards. That was very unique and something that — with many things that happened at Augusta — that I will never forget.”
Garcia is not sure why his victory was so popular, especially after having so many tough losses in the majors where he made excuses. The texts, the hugs, the comments he has heard were validation to him that he always had their respect for his game and for being honest, even if it got him into trouble at times.
One of the fences he mended was with Padraig Harrington, who tripped over his words in referring to Garcia as a sore loser during their battles a decade earlier. Harrington said they ran into each other at McIlroy’s wedding and it was important for them to clear the air. “Sergio made it very easy,” he said.
McIlroy was asked about it and without answering, he reached into his pocket for his phone and began scrolling through the pictures to show one of Harrington with a broad smile as Garcia is leaning into him, chin up and lips puckered as he feigns planting a kiss on Harrington’s cheek.
“It was great,” McIlroy said. “I saw them chatting and I said to Padraig, ‘He’s a really sore loser.’ We all started to laugh. And it was all good.”
Life has never been more grand for Garcia. He is assured his best season ever no matter what happens the rest of the year. He is getting married in July — McIlroy will be one of his groomsmen. He is a major champion.
“He’s got to walk around with a smile on his face for the next couple years,” Jordan Spieth said.
And now it’s time to get back to work.
Garcia returns to a tournament where he won in 2008 and was runner-up on two other occasions, including a playoff loss two years ago. There are three more majors ahead of them, with plenty more to accomplish. Even though it took him nearly two decades to get his first major, he doesn’t intend on that being his last.
The first step is Thursday, where players typically are introduced by name and what tournament they have won this year.
Masters champion. How does that sound?
“I’m excited about it. I’m not going to lie to you,” Garcia said with a smile. “I’m sure a lot of things will go through my mind about that week, but it’s a great thing to have.”
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