US challenge petered out before the turn and Sergio Garca saw off Justin Rose, his Ryder Cup team-mate, at the first extra hole in what also became a celebration of their great sportsmanship
For a few brief moments on Sunday afternoon the 2017 Masters was alive with possibility. At the far end of the 1st hole, Tea Olive, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, the two finest young players in the US today, were standing in front of the green, scheming over the chip shots they were about to play. Way back behind them Justin Rose and Sergio Garca, another couple of close friends, were making their way up the fairway from the 1st tee, to the spot where their drives fell. Close behind them came a herd of fans, joining the thousands already gathered close by. The only thing anyone was any too sure of then was that in the end the winner was likely to be one of these four men. But which it would be was anyones guess.
Five hours later it was still all up in the air. Only now there were just two contenders left, Rose and Garca, two men who grew up playing with, and against, each other. Their duel here will go down as one of the great contests in the history of the Masters, all the better because they both seemed to take so much enjoyment in each others success.
After their tee-shots on the 16th they swapped a low-five, Garca stretching out his hand for his pal. After their approaches into the 18th Rose flicked his friend a thumbs-up. And when it was all finally over, Garca winning at the 18th in the first hole of play-off, the first thing the two men did was hug each other. For the Spaniard the long wait for a first major was finally over. The man many reckoned the least likely of the four turned out to be the strongest of the lot.
Spieth was the first of the four to fall away. This was the fourth time he has played in the Masters and, remarkably, it was the first time he had not been part of the final pair on Sunday. It did not suit him. Spieth missed one par putt at the 1st after chipping past the pin and another on the 3rd. There was a birdie between the two but another bogey at the short downhill 6th meant he was two over for his round, and two under for the tournament at the turn. He was already out of it. And that was before he put his tee-shot into the water at the 12th, just as he did last year. It is going to be a long time before he ever feels comfortable playing that shot on a Sunday again.
Fowler, meanwhile, made it around the front nine in level par. He picked up a shot at the 3rd, thanks to his fine second shot into the green, and the 8th, where he rescued himself with a deft chip from over a towering mound and up to the hole. In between the two, though, he made back-to-back bogeys at the 4th, where he had to splash out of the front bunker after his tee-shot fell short, and the 5th, where he rattled his second into the grandstand and took four strokes to get down from there. Fowlers problem at this point was that scrambling around in par just was not going to get it done. He knew it too.
One can choose not to look at the huge scoreboards around Augusta but one cannot ignore the roars. And back behind him, Garca and Rose were giving the crowd plenty to cheer about.
Fowler was three off the lead when he reached the turn. And then he dropped two shots at Amen Corner. So then there were two, Garca and Rose. Most of the fans were now rooting for the Spaniard because, as everyone knows, he was due a break or two.
Garca has fetched up second at majors four times in his career, at the PGA in 1999 and 2008, the Open in 2007, when he lost in a play-off after missing a birdie putt by an inch, and 2014. He has finished in pretty much every position in the top 10 in his time, except for first. He has faltered in the final stretch so often that one needed to be brave with your money to back him now. But this week Garca has seemed a different man.
Some say he has changed because he is engaged to be married. Either way, at the age of 37 he has finally found whatever little piece of his game he had been missing. He seized hold of the tournament in the first three holes. He clobbered his drive long and straight at the 1st tee, way past Rose, and then followed it up with a wonderful second shot that left him a simple birdie putt. He picked up another shot at the 3rd, and went to eight under. Rose dropped a shot by three-putting the 5th. So Garca was three shots up. But then Rose strung together three birdies, at the 6th, 7th and 8th. That left them both at eight under coming into the back nine.
Garcia blinked first. He dropped shots at the 10th when he hit his second into the pine needles, then chipped over the green and the 11th. It looked as if Amen Corner had claimed another victim. But Oh, Sergio! he made a birdie at the 14th and an eagle at the 15th, when he holed a 10-foot putt. Rose still had his nose in front. He made a birdie at the 15th, another at the 16th. But then, with only two holes to go, he missed a short par putt and they were all square again.
They both missed their birdie putts on the 18th and left the green together, arms around each other, to play-off in the final hole of this extraordinary tournament.