Which route will Sergio take after a major victory?
Beyond the career-vindicating aspect of yet another stunning Masters Tournament finish more than a week ago, what Sergio Garcia’s first major championship victory did was get us to ask the question: Will the result be career-altering as well?
Garcia’s Masters title also flips him from one conversation list to another. After being a mainstay on the “best players to never win a major” list for several years, Garcia has validated his special talent with the victory and puts himself on track for being a World Golf Hall of Famer. Now he becomes part of a discussion of “how elite can he become in golf history?” Which road will he go down among those taken by Ben Hogan, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh or Lou Graham?
Based on what other players did after winning their first major around the same age Garcia did at 37, there are a few routes his career can take, among them:
The Ben Hogan Route: The great Texan was 34 when he won his first major—the age by which Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson had won their final major—and the floodgates opened. Hogan finished with nine.
The Phil Mickelson Route: For years, Mickelson had to contend with Woods’ dominance, but he finally got his first major at nearly age 34, and to date has five total. He’ll be 47 in June.
The Vijay Singh Route: Singh is 54 now. He won his first major at 35 and is likely done with a total of three. Nick Price performed similarly, winning No. 1 at 35 and ending with three. Larry Nelson won his first at 34 and finished with three.
The Lou Graham Route: When he beat John Mahaffey in a playoff to win the 1975 U.S. Open, Graham was 37 but he never won another major. This has been a popular road; several golfers won at age 37 or older and never won another big one, including: Jerry Barber (age 45), Tommy Bolt (42), Darren Clarke (42), Roberto De Vicenzo (44), Bob Goalby (39), Todd Hamilton (38), Tom Kite (42), Tom Lehman (37) and Kel Nagle (39). Henrik Stenson won the Open last year at 40, but common sense says he will win again. Tommy Aaron and Stewart Cink were 36 and Gay Brewer and Orville Moody were 35 when they won their lone major.
Not mentioned yet, with the age of their first major, are Padraig Harrington (35), Angel Cabrera (37), Craig Wood (39), Mark O’Meara (41), Ted Ray (35) and Jock Hutchison (36). Harrington, who will be 46 in August, was nearly 36 when he won his first major in 2007; he tacked on two more quickly the following year. All the others won two majors.
Garcia’s breakthrough didn’t have the feel of a career culmination as it did for players such as Kite and Clarke. Their majors were crowning achievements and validation of standout careers. Others, such as Graham and Hamilton, were surprises. No one questions that everyone above continued to try and win majors, but success ranged from Hogan to just the lone-major winners.
Now that Garcia has climbed the mountain, the feeling is he's going to want to linger around and enjoy the view from every angle before descending. His talent would indicate he’ll be on the Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh routes, winning multiple majors when he’s done. His driving, iron play and short game are on a level that should guarantee that. Perhaps most importantly, he’s playing with composure and maturity we’ve not seen from him. His impending marriage, and all the components of wedded life, could enhance that and give him stability on the course for the rest of his playing prime.
The boyish enthusiasm that so captured the golf world when Garcia first emerged, and then disappeared under some petulant behavior, may now come full circle. And if it does, look for Garcia to take the route less traveled, the route the winners of multiple majors take.