Hala Sergio! #SergioSlam2017

The Masters
9 April 2017

Sergio Garcia won the 81st Masters.

Sergio Garcia won The Masters.

Sergio Garcia is a major champion.

Yes indeed it is all true. Last week I told you that it might happen. There was no rocket science behind it, just a refusal to accept that his day would not come. If you kept the faith and stuck with him then well done to you.

You can find lots of stats that might help explain the reasons why Sergio won: his driving; his irons and GIR return; his proximity to the pin; his scrambling; his strokes gained; his putting; but you’ve heard it all already and for me it was simply a case of dominating certain holes in a manner in which he had not quite done in recent years. For example, last week I told you he had struggled badly on the 1st hole in 2016, playing it in +4 for the week. This year he played it in -2, including that superb birdie on Sunday that set the early tone. For 2015 and 2016 combined he played a total of nine holes in over par, whereas this year only the 4th, 7th, 10th and 11th holes stifled him, and at that, at no more than +1 over the four days for each. Damage limitation, and ceteris paribus (e.g. continuing to make a mockery of no. 15, continuing to make solid pars on 12 and 16), it was a formula that would prove successful.

I also told you last week that Sergio needed to sort out his front nine numbers in particular. He had been nine shots worse on the front side in 2015/2016 than on the back nine. This year, he obliterated the front nine, playing it in -6 for the week, which was even better than the -3 he recorded on the back. He was at least three shots better than the 2015/2016 averages on the 1st, 5th and 6th holes. The way he managed to scramble a bogey on the 10th and a par on the 13th on Sunday underlined the execution of a damage limitation regime that helped to reduce the negative impact of any mistakes. The 13th the ultimate turning point, somehow salvaging a par from an unplayable in the woods.

But the stats are the stats. This was a win made possible only by the years of near misses. Justin Rose summed it up best himself. If you want to win majors you’ve got to be ready to lose them. If you are good enough to be in the position to win them you will get into the position again and again and there will be pressure. You will need to learn to cope with it. When the chance comes, it gets intense. Sergio had that intense look in his eye. The conviction with which he smoked his first tee shot on Sunday. And again on the 2nd. Again on the 3rd. And when things temporarily went south early on the back nine only for a reprise on the 13th green, the tee shots on 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 were all flawlessly fierce and fueled by a Spanish adrenaline ignited by the returning whiff of victory and a steely determination to not let it slip this time. The approach on 14 was the most predictable outcome in the history of golf. You just knew he would not fail to find that slope. I told you last week that he loves the 14th.

Then, the approach on 15. This deserves an entire book. Probably one of the top five greatest golf shots in Masters history. Maybe the best. The look in his eyes as he leered up and down at ball and pin will live long in the memory. And the putt. The PUTT. Tell yourself Sergio isn’t a great putter. He putted into the hole an eagle putt on 15 on Masters Sunday having almost thrown it away. This on top of other vital putts for birdie and par made earlier on. TELL YOURSELF SERGIO CANNOT PUTT. It is not true and maybe it never was. Maybe it was just something we convinced ourselves.

The standard of golf down the stretch will be remembered forever. The 16th hole, where Rose answered Sergio and clawed back a shot by making his birdie with that Olympian spirit. He did not really deserve to lose. Two Ryder Cup warriors this time battling against one another. The 18th was drama in the extreme. Convinced that Rose would not miss, I feared that this would be the defeat of all defeats for Sergio and force him into early retirement. But no, a chance to WIN. A slippery downhiller, but still a chance to win. Shades of Carnoustie’s 18th green in 2007. And when the putt strayed out on the right side, the bastard ghosts of Carnoustie you feared had crossed the pond to Georgia and Sergio would be broken again.

But no. It was Sergio’s driving that wore Justin down more than anything. The 18th hole set up perfectly for Sergio’s power cut. He fired it out there yet again in the playoff as if it was on tap, and when Rose let his tee shot slide into the trees it was effectively done. Sergio firing into the 18th green with a wedge as he had done in regulation. 100% committed to every swing. The putt did not have to drop but it was fitting that it did. A celebration notable in its pure elation rather than raw emotion. The Augusta crowd almost as jubilant as Sergio and his family. I found this telling. He did not seem to emit the sense of relief, or “finally”, that you might have expected. It was just pure joyous celebration.

Above all it was Sergio’s refusal to accept defeat that pulled him through. No fear of failure anymore. No acceptance of just trying one’s best and see if it is good enough anymore. No “played well but the other guy just played better” anymore. No. No. NO. This was flat out REFUSAL.

As is often said when someone breaks a hoodoo, the floodgates may well open up and Sergio could become a multiple major winner before too long. Not only do I agree, I’ve got my money on “SergioSlam 2017”.

Vamos!

Can Sergio Garcia Win The Masters?

The Masters Preview
1 April 2017

Of course he can.

But let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

Here is a snapshot of Sergio’s record in major championships:sergio

The above is summarised as follows, with his Masters record highlighted in bold:

73 appearances (18 / 17 / 20 / 18 )
54 Cuts Made (13 / 15 / 16 / 11 )
22 Top Tens (3 / 5 / 10 / 4 )
12 Top Fives (1 / 3 / 5 / 3 )
4 Seconds (0 / 0 / 2 / 2 )
18 Missed Cuts (5 / 2 / 4 / 7 )
1 DQ (2007 USPGA)

The overall picture equates to 74% of cuts made, a 30% top ten finish rate, a 16% top five finish rate and a 5% return of second place finishes.

For The Masters, the record breaks down as eighteen appearances, with five missed cuts (28%) and three top ten finishes (17%), just one of which was a top five finish (T4 in 2004).

Of the four majors his record of making cuts at Augusta is third best (72% return), behind The Open Championship (80%) and the US Open (88%), with the PGA Championship trailing behind at 61% if you include 2007 (he made the cut but was disqualified after the third round for signing an incorrect scorecard).

In terms of top ten finishes, his record at Augusta of three from eighteen (17%) is the worst of the four majors, behind totals of four at the USPGA (22%), five at the US Open (29%) and an impressive ten at The Open Championship (50%). That’s right, Sergio has finished in the top ten of exactly half of Open Championships he has played in, but he has done so in a mere sixth of his Masters appearances.

Top five finishes do not read any better, again with the Masters lagging behind the rest, his sole top five finish coming in 2004, representing a 6% return (USPGA 17%, US Open 18%, The Open 25%). That’s right, in one of every four Open Championships contested Sergio has finished in the top five, but he has only done this once at Augusta.

The stats don’t tell the whole story. Even the overall stat of just four second place finishes out of 73 majors slightly belies the assumption of many that Sergio has come close and blown it on  multiple occasions. Perhaps you could say he has done this four times (at a rate of 5%) if you base it on second place finishes. Or perhaps you could say he has done it twelve times (at a rate of 16%) if you base it on top five finishes. It seems that Sergio has struggled less at the other majors than at Augusta, but does this mean he has no chance to win it? Well, measuring it solely on leaderboard positions is not necessarily the best way. For example, at the 2010 US Open Dustin Johnson was infamously leading the tournament by three shots going into the final round and finished tied for 8th. Rory McIlroy was infamously leading the 2011 Masters on the 10th tee on Sunday but ended up finishing tied 15th. Conversely, top five finishes do not always translate as having been in contention to win. The best example of this in recent times may be Erik Comption’s second place at the 2014 US Open, finishing eight shots behind runaway winner Kaymer. However you analyse it, what has frustrated Sergio fans as much as the near misses has been his failure to stay in contention and give himself more chances to win.

Garcia has missed more cuts at the USPGA than at The Masters but in terms of challenging on Sunday Augusta seems to be where Sergio has turned in the weakest results of the four majors over the years. To make the tie for fourth in 2004, his only top five, he was never in contention. He shot 66 on Sunday to shoot up the leaderboard from way back, but still finished six shots behind Mickelson. Some of the other results are worth noting, however. In 2002 he entered the final day four shots off the lead, but shot 75 to end up eight back of Tiger. After 36 holes in 2012 he was one shot off the lead, but he faded over the weekend with rounds of 75 and 71 for a T12 finish. A year later in 2013 he shot the joint low round 66 on Thursday, but dropped down the leaderboard with a 76 on Friday. Still not out of it, he needed a sub-70 round on Saturday, but a 73 left him with too much to do. He clawed his way back into the top ten with a 70 on Sunday but was never in contention.  Last year, 2016, Sergio was three shots off the lead going into the weekend, but shot a miserable 81 on Saturday. He has returned plenty of low rounds at Augusta, so I would not accept the view that his failure to contend down the stretch on Sundays is due to an issue with course suitability. Sergio has the game to score around Augusta, of that there is no doubt, it is just a question of whether he can sustain it over all four rounds and score a bit better on certain holes.

The popular assumption is that putting is a key issue. I am not so sure and will duly investigate. His average scores for the last two years do throw up some interesting general facts (note that Augusta played harder in 2016 than in 2015 so the two year average gives a nice spread):

  • Combined gross score +3. Final scores: 2015 (T17) -5; 2016 (T34) +8.
  • He has scored far worse on the front nine than on the back nine: +6 over the two years on the front, -3 on the back.
  • He has played five holes at +2 or worse over the two years (1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 18th).
  • He was +4 for the week on the 1st hole in 2016, his worst hole in 2015 or 2016.
  • He has played the par fives in -9, yet level par on the 13th.
  • He has played four holes under par over the period (2nd, 8th, 14th, 15th).
  • He parred the par three 12th all four days in 2016. His score around Amen Corner over the two years is +2.

The above suggests that if Sergio can brush up on the par threes and par fours (the 1st hole especially) and improve his return on the 13th and 18th holes, then he has a much better chance of challenging, albeit this is a simplistic assessment. My interim opinion remains that Sergio is slowly working out Augusta. I believe that The Masters 2017 is his best chance yet to win a major, purely because it is the next chance. He has been in that Butler Cabin before, in 1999 as the Low Amateur, and he will be there again!

Sergio By Night, Sergio By Day

5 February 2017
European Tour

Sergio Garcia had not played much competitive golf in the last few months before this week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He appeared at just three events at the back end of 2016 in the aftermath of the Ryder Cup, finishing T19 at the CIMB Classic and T9 at the WGC HSBC Champions in October, followed by a T19 at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November. Not spectacular results, but nonetheless almost $400k earned somewhat effortlessly in the process. Sergio could have been forgiven for delivering another casual, almost nonchalant top twenty finish here in Dubai again at the Emirates Golf Club in his first appearance of 2017, but rather than ease himself into the new year, the brilliant Spaniard decided to go wire-to-wire for his twenty-first career victory on the two big tours, holding off the challenge of Henrik Stenson.

On a first day when much of the focus was misdirected elsewhere, Sergio raced into the lead with a 65 and never surrendered it. Perhaps the conclusion of the third round was critical. In almost complete darkness on Saturday evening, Garcia, Coetzee and Elvira decided to finish the round and played the par five 18th hole with night goggles on. Keen to avoid having to return early on Sunday morning, yet not at the expense of dropping shots, the group went birdie-birdie-eagle in a remarkable scene against the backdrop of a spectacular Dubai night skyline. Garcia’s birdie gave him a three shot lead over Stenson going into the final round and he never really allowed Stenson to get too close on Sunday. After back to back birdies on the 13th and 14th holes had put Stenson within two strokes, Garcia replied with a sublime tee shot to two feet on the par three 15th, which, following a Stenson bogey on the same hole, gave Garcia a four shot cushion with three holes remaining. Work was still to be done, including a superb up-and-down on the 16th, but the two-shot swing on the 15th would prove to be the key moment of the back nine.

There are high expectations of Sergio. Some say he should have won more tournaments. Some say he should have won majors. Some say he will still win many more tournaments. Some say he will still win majors. I would agree with all of it. But the manner in which Sergio’s career has been covered in certain corners of the media raises a concern. We know he is good, just as we know other players are good, but why is there a need to psycho-analyse one of the best golfers of the last twenty years as if he has been failing in some respect? Winning golf tournaments is hard. Winning majors is even harder. There are only four of them a year. It has taken some of the greatest champions in the history of the sport a long time to make the major breakthrough. Some have never made it.

Sarah Stirk and Wayne Riley of Sky Sports have their own views, having apparently undertaken joint roles as Garcia’s psychologists. I had not realised this arrangement was in place. In a comical attempt at post tournament analysis, they seemed to be in a position to confirm that when Sergio was not playing well or winning tournaments every time he teed it up that it was because certain other players were “getting in his head” or because he was not engaged to be married. Would Sergio agree with this? Is this why he only finished tied for 19th place in his previous tournament? Have they asked him? Do they know what his actual psychologist thinks? Does he have one? What was going on with his head when he won all those other tournaments?

Then, in typically pointless fashion, Sarah asked Wayne “do you think Sergio will win a major this year?”. Wayne’s first answer was excellent: “do you want the lottery numbers as well?” and he should have left it at that. However, he then proceeded to undo his good work and claim that Birkdale would be Garcia’s best chance to win a major in 2017. Oh really? Is it because Sergio has finished T29 and T51 on the last two occasions The Open has been staged at Birkdale, despite having a significantly better record at most of the other venues on The Open rota? This is his year at The Open? It could be of course, but is Riley assuming that Sergio cannot putt on the Augusta greens? He has finished in the top-five at The Masters before, been in contention and shot plenty of rounds in the 60’s, so why would Augusta not suit him more than Birkdale? Especially if he putts on those greens like he putted this week. Has a tournament ever been played at this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills? Noting that the answer to that question is NO, then how do we know Birkdale will suit Sergio Garcia more than Erin Hills? By all accounts the long and firm set-up projected for this year’s US Open would seem to appeal to Sergio’s game. As for the PGA, Sergio has not won at Quail Hollow’s regular Tour stop, but he has gone as close as losing a playoff, which suggests that he knows his way around that track and therefore might just see the PGA Championship as just as much of a chance as Birkdale. True enough, Sergio loves The Open and The Open loves him, but I do not see how Birkdale specifically is Garcia’s “best chance” to win a major in 2017. His best chance is simply the next chance, which is in April at Augusta. This week in Dubai he was third in driving distance, second in driving accuracy, first in greens in regulation and seventeenth in putts per GIR. That to me suggests a game ready for anything and anywhere.