When Sergio Garcia sunk his birdie putt on the 73rd hole Sunday to win The Masters, Augusta National burst into an unfamiliar chant.
Garcia has been the chief antagonist of American golf fans in the 2000s and 2010s. (Colin Montgomerie gets the 1990s). This weekend at Augusta, the crowd reaction made it sound more like he was their hero. Winning is said to cure everything, but should it?
The Garcia narrative started in 1999, when the Spaniard, who turned pro just after earning low amateur honors at The Masters, charged near the top of the leaderboard at the PGA Championship. Tiger Woods, then-America's 23-year-old golden boy, was the only man in Garcia's way. Woods held off Garcia by a stroke at Medinah, starting an international rivalry between the two most promising youngsters on their respective continents. That fall, Garcia earned 3.5 points against the United States in the Ryder Cup, which the U.S. narrowly won, 14.5-13.5.
At the 2002 U.S. Open, Garcia was famously heckled by the New York crowd at Bethpage due to his long waggle before each shot. Garcia went as far as to flip off a fan.
"The Gettysburg Address was shorter," wrote Greg Cote of the Miami Herald in reference to Garcia's slow pace.
Garcia played with Woods in the final pairing that tournament, but he dropped all the way to fourth, losing by six shots.
For the most part, Garcia's rivalry with Americans has been about healthy competition. His eight Ryder Cup appearances are second-most among active PGA Tour or European Tour players, trailing only Lee Westwood's 10.
But in 2013, the nature of the rivalry changed. That May, Garcia claimed Woods purposely distracted a Garcia shot at The Players Championship. At a European Tour Awards dinner two weeks later, Garcia was asked if he would invite Woods over for dinner during the upcoming U.S. Open.
"We will have him 'round every night," Garcia said. "We will serve fried chicken."
Yeah, it's pretty clear what Garcia meant.
Woods turned to Twitter to offer his opinion:
"The comment that was made wasn't silly," he wrote. "It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate…I'm confident that there is real regret that the remark was made…The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it's long past time to move on and talk about golf."
Garcia issued an apology, saying, "I answered a question that was clearly made towards me as a joke with a silly remark, but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner."
He subsequently told the media: "My answer was totally stupid and out of place. I feel sick about it."
Life went on. Woods and Garcia didn't drop the gloves in the middle of the course. They didn't hold a public grudge. They've been around each other for dozens of events since 2013, and if there's bad blood, it is not apparent. After Garcia's victory Sunday, Woods offered his long-time nemesis congratulations on Twitter.
Congrats @TheSergioGarcia. Well earned.
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) April 9, 2017
Sunday was Garcia's day -- as a golfer. Fans have known about Garcia for roughly half his life. He was supposed to do this a long time ago. He entered this Masters with 22 top tens at majors, including four runner-up finishes. Woods obviously got the better of Garcia, winning 14 majors, but Garcia is at peace with his one green jacket. Fellow players, celebrities and golf media celebrated Garcia as he finally got over his demons.
— Danny Willett (@Danny_Willett) April 10, 2017
— GOLF.com (@golf_com) April 10, 2017
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) April 10, 2017
It's been a long time coming for Sergio Garcia ... pic.twitter.com/hjAWxTV5zk
— ESPN (@espn) April 9, 2017
— Natalie Gulbis (@natalie_gulbis) April 10, 2017
2 unbelievable players and 2 great friends, but I couldn't be happier for @TheSergioGarcia. You deserve it all amigo!!
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) April 9, 2017
Sometimes, the hard questions have to be asked. Should winning a Masters get Garcia off the hook for his "fried chicken" comment?
There are excuses that can be made: "It was a mistake," or "It was a joke," or "He was young."
But the facts are hard to ignore. Garcia was 33, had been in the public eye for a decade and a half and had traveled the world. Making such a blatantly racist comment -- particularly after the uproar in 1997 regarding Fuzzy Zoeller's thoughts about Tiger serving fried chicken and collard greens at the Champions Dinner -- is hard to pass off as an accident. Regretful, but purposeful.
It does not take away from Garcia's career accomplishments. He is probably a top 100 player of all time and maybe a top 25 European player in history. He is now a Masters champion. Garcia was the best player at Augusta all weekend -- he was the only player with four rounds under par -- and he has long had the ability to win a major. Claiming a green jacket is a hefty addition to a storied career.
Now this is not a troll of Garcia. But in the same way that Tiger's infidelities and Phil Mickelson's making nearly $1 million trading on inside information will always be part of their stories, Garcia has to live with the fried chicken remark being a part of his, green jacket or not.
Sergio Garcia played beautiful golf in the United States' most historic venue. He deserves credit for that.
The mistakes of his past don't need to be the dominant angle, but they do need to be included to give his story proper context, especially in a sport still dominated by whites and wealth.
Garcia earned the cheers by winning the tournament, and in the moment, carrying himself with class and dignity. But those cheers don't give automatically give him a clean slate.