MIAMI: Sergio Garcia, who returns to competition this week after winning the Masters, said Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) he has been most gratified by cheers from his peers and a “Classico” football appearance.
Garcia, who tees off Thursday afternoon at the US PGA Players Championship, captured his first major title after 73 failures last month at Augusta National, downing England’s Justin Rose in a playoff to claim the coveted green jacket symbolic of Masters champions.
In the four weeks off since then, Garcia has relaxed and celebrated and notably worn the jacket on April 23 when he appeared at the Barcelona-Real Madrid showdown at Real’s 70-year-old home stadium for a 3-2 Barcelona victory.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have amazing cheers and 15,000-20,000 people chanting my name at Augusta, Ryder Cups, something like that. It’s unbelievable,” Garcia said.
“But to walk on what I think is the best stadium in the world, the Bernabeu, in a Classico against Barcelona, which is probably the biggest football game that exists in this world, and to have 90,000 people chanting your name, that was extremely special.”
Garcia admitted the moment was as nerve-wracking as any high-pressure putt he has ever faced.
“I was nervous. And I was only kicking the ball 15 yards,” Garcia said of his magic moment. “That was very unique and that was something that, with many things that happened at Augusta, I will never forget.”
‘I’m excited’ about major champ intro
Garcia will be introduced as a major champion for the first time on the first tee at the famed TPC Sawgrass layout alongside Australia’s Adam Scott and American Matt Kuchar.
“I would love to tell you what it’s going to feel like but I’m not going to know until Thursday,” Garcia said. “I’m excited about it. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m sure a lot of things about that (Masters) week will go through my mind and stuff and it’s a great thing to have happen.”
Garcia played his first majors at the 1996 and 1998 British Opens as an amateur and turned professional at age 19 after being the low amateur at the 1999 Masters.
Now 37, Garcia’s breakthrough has not changed his attitude about having to keep improving his game.
“It’s not only about winning,” Garcia said. “There are so many important things you can do to feel like you are improving.
“To stay hungry, the other thing you have to do is just keep working hard. I know I can still improve. I’ve always said my goal is to keep becoming better.”
One cannot spell perseverance without “Seve” and it added to the epic aspect of Garcia’s triumph that it came on what would have been the 60th birthday of Seve Ballesteros, the Spanish legend who died of brain cancer in 2011 at age 54.
Ballesteros, who won the Masters twice and took three British Opens, was Garcia’s boyhood idol.
‘It was either retire or keep going’
Garcia said that when it came to following up his shock victory with a long break, “it was either retire or keep going,” but noted, “I had a plan like this before I managed to win the Masters.”
But his plans didn’t include so many well wishers, especially those rival players who were overjoyed at seeing Garcia’s persistence pay off, including Rory McIlroy saying he was in tears at Garcia’s achievement, one that would have completed a career Grand Slam for McIlroy had he won.
“It has been amazing,” Garcia said. “So many great things have happened since Sunday at Augusta. The support from fans, supporters and everyone around the world has been amazing.
“But, for me, what has meant the most has been to see the reaction from players and their support to me. They have been so happy for me to get my first major. That shows me a lot. That shows me how my fellow players respect me and care about me and it’s something you really can’t replace.”