Somehow golf persevered this week. Tiger Woods ceased pretending he would play in the Masters, Dustin Johnson injured himself on the eve of the tournament and yet golf soldiered on, with Sergio Garcia surviving an epic leaderboard and, as he said wryly, becoming the best player to win one major.
We can fret about Woods’ premature decline and the absence of a dominant replacement, but golf always will be situational. No matter how many legends or prospective legends bow out, there will be great players on the leaderboard and a Sunday duel. There are 100 qualified players and dozens of potential winners in every major field.
Garcia became a major champion in his 74th try and that became the story of the week. That may not have happened if Johnson had played or Woods had stayed healthy and relevant. We will never know and we don’t need to know. Golf is not worse off because Garcia won the Masters in their absence. Golf may be better for it.
Only those who lack imagination require Woods, in dominance or convalescence, to make golf matter. Golf will survive his awkward departure. It already has.
Woods is often credited with increasing the popularity of the game, but what he did was not sustainable. Many of the courses built to capitalize on his rise have failed or foundered; the equipment boom he sponsored has waned.
He did not change the game. He changed the way people who didn’t care about the game viewed the game. That’s something, but it’s not forever.
What is enduring is that golf will always fulfill my explanation of why we love sports. It is the examination of talented people under pressure. This week, Garcia handled major championship pressure better than he ever had before, altering his persona in America from talented whiner to matured achiever.
He hit remarkable shots, survived poor putts, and finally struck one true, his winning putt on the 18th in a playoff dropping without hesitation into the cup, leaving Garcia celebrating in every way possible — exulting, doubling over, blowing kisses, hugging his competitor and finally searching out his fiancée.
Garcia was reflective in victory and Justin Rose, the man he beat, was gracious. They had competed since the age of 14, had won internationally and had dueled all week in the sun and winds and on the increasingly crusty greens of Augusta National. There was no doubt they would embrace on the 18th green; the question was whether one would console the other, or whether they would console each other as someone like Jordan Spieth shrugged into a green jacket.
Rose was remarkably steady all week, providing a reminder that sustained excellence and composure isn’t always enough, not in this sport. On the back nine on Sunday, he missed putts by centimeters. Garcia wavered between making clutch 10-footers and missing wobbly 4-footers, yet won because golf is relentlessly situational.
After a career in majors defined by missed putts, he finally won with a putt he didn’t need to make. Requiring two putts to win on the sun-drenched 18th in the playoff, he drained his first attempt, then displayed enough emotion in a minute to fill a feature-length movie.
We’ve been intrigued by Sergio since 1999, when he hit a famous shot at Medinah yet did not win. We’ve expected much and been disappointed, but he is an international success and now with a major becomes even more intriguing, a belated major winner with health and an inspirational fiancée and a second wind and who knows?
Woods seems done. Johnson, like Jason Day and Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, has to prove he is more than a temporary fascination. Garcia will not become The Next Big Thing but golf does not need one.
Even when The Big Thing or The Next Big Thing disappoints, someone else takes his place. There will always be room at the top of the leaderboard for a great story. There is no reason to bemoan the absent. The winner will have a story to tell.