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Kelly: Garcia’s Masters victory the ultimate act of redemption

Sergio Garcia fnally got his first major win, after a putt on the 18th green, in his 74th start as a pro. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

After he’d beaten Sergio Garcia in a playoff at the 2007 British Open, Padraig Harrington paused to do emotional triage on the bereft Spaniard.

“I know this sound clichéd, but, at 27, he’s still young and he will win majors. It will happen,” the Irishman said.

It didn’t help. Garcia was already slipping into despondency: “I don’t know how I manage to do these things.”

In the intervening decade, the rest of us came over to Garcia’s point of view.

Once the most heralded young golfer in the world, he had become the sport’s middle-aged punch line. He may not have been born a loser, but he’d worked up to it.

It wasn’t a function of talent. Rather, it was the paucity of practising exorcists left in the world. Because clearly, Garcia was cursed.

As he edged into his 30s, Garcia’s smile disappeared. His posture bowed. He became blurry around the edges.

Looking back on his most famous teenage highlight – skipping up the fairway after a mind-boggling escape shot at Medinah – you felt as though you were looking at completely different person. Now 37 years old, unrealized expectations had quite literally crushed Garcia.

So on Sunday, as we watched him win his first major at the Masters, it was more than a highlights package, a garish jacket and a big cheque. It was an opportunity to watch in real time as someone redeemed a lifetime’s effort after 20 years of failure.

“It’s funny. I have seen it several times,” Garcia said afterward on the topic of how he’d anticipated this moment. “When I came here in ’99 as an amateur, I felt like this course would give me at least one championship. … I’m not going to lie. That thought changed in the years. But I kinda came to peace with it … I think because of that, I’m able to stand here today.”

Too often, the final day of the Masters descends into a re-enactment of Tortoise v. Hare. All the juice is sucked out of the occasion as someone runs away with it in the last five or six holes. Then it turns pompous and processional.

This time, it was instead an electric back-and-forth between the final pair – Garcia and England’s Justin Rose. At one point, Garcia was up by three shots. Then came the expected, slow collapse. On the 13th, it looked as though the Spaniard had blown it, driving his ball into thick brush and taking a penalty drop. He recovered.

From that point, the rest of the field conveniently dropped away, which allowed the two Europeans to engage in match play of unparalleled quality.

There were, in all, two or three shots from either man that will be replayed here for many years.

The afternoon ended in an 18-hole draw. Rose shanked his first shot of the playoff and was forced to punch out from the underbrush. He knew he’d lost it then.

Instead of walking up to the green with Garcia, he lingered on the fairway, conceding the moment and the ovation to his long-suffering colleague.

Golf likes to talk up its image as a gentleman’s game, and sometimes fails in that respect. But Rose’s gesture showed the sport at its most noble.

“You can’t feel bad for me,” Rose said wryly afterward, sounding like he actually meant it.

Few men will understand Garcia’s difficulties quite so well as Rose. He also peaked early – finishing fourth as a 17-year-old at an Open. He also fell into a performance trough, missing the cut in his first 21 professional outings. He was also prematurely written off. And it took finally winning a major in his 30s to shut everyone up.

This must be why he could be so sanguine while watching another man take a prize he’d had one hand on. Justin Rose understands the power of fate.

As it ended, Garcia didn’t leap about. After a few fist pumps, he dropped into a winded crouch and stayed there for a few beats. He looked like he wanted to cry, but could not locate the proper emotion. A function of face-saving, major-tournament habit, perhaps.

Hours before, as Rose and Garcia were beginning their shift, Canadian Adam Hadwin had just finished his own.

“At least we have something positive to talk about today,” the Augusta debutant said as he shuffled up to the mics. He finished his tournament at six over par.

“It is just another event at the end of the day,” Hadwin said, channelling his internal sports psychologist.

Tell that to Garcia. Or Rose. Or any one of the thousands who were there at the end.

It’s very difficult to properly convey to someone who hasn’t been here exactly how unlike any other place Augusta National is, how disorienting it can feel in snapshots.

There is an attendant in the bathroom whose job it is to freshen the stalls between uses. He stands against the back wall, spray bottle at the ready, and waits.

Among the people leading small tour groups around the media centre is former U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. A while back, she advised a president of the United States. Now she’s shuffling rich swells around an oversized living room.

You may drink yourself legless, but you may never, ever, lie down on the grass (according to rumour, because a spectator once fell down dead during the Masters and, embarrassingly, no one noticed).

This place is – and I use the word advisedly – surreal.

And it seems that way to those of us who are only visiting. Imagine how much more bizarre it must feel to those few who perform in the show’s final act.

There is undoubtedly a strong element of the ridiculous to Augusta National. Everything about it is so heightened, so exaggerated, that it borders on cartoonish. What makes it a dreamland instead of a theme park is that, every year, all the people who come here get to watch someone else’s lifetime dream come true.

Some years – like this year – the dream is just a little bigger.