Sergio Garcia holds the Sanderson Farms Championship trophy after winning the PGA golf tournament in Jackson, Miss., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

With the sun beginning to set over the clubhouse at Country Club of Jackson Sunday, Sergio Garcia closed his eyes. You should know he did not close his eyes to make a wish. No, he closed his eyes to make a 30-inch putt — a million dollar putt, a winning putt on the 72nd hole of the 53rd Sanderson Farms Championship.

And, with eyes closed, he made it. Garcia, a 40-year-old Spaniard, thus becomes the most accomplished winner in the history of Mississippi’s tournament on the PGA Tour. This wasn’t a first-time winner. This wasn’t somebody you wouldn’t recognize without reading his name on his golf bag. This was Sergio Garcia, El Nino himself, winner of The Masters in 2017, winner of 35 other professional tournaments around the globe and many times a Ryder Cup hero.

Widely considered one of the best ball strikers in the game, Garcia regularly booms his seemingly sky-high drives 330 yards or more. He is also one of golf’s most accurate iron players. No telling how many major tournaments he would have won by now if not for his Achilles’ heel, his putter.

Rick Cleveland

Garcia has tried to putt conventionally. He has tried to putt cross-handed. He has tried looking at the hole instead of the ball. He has tried the claw grip and just about every make and model of putter that exists.

Lately — and here at his first visit to Jackson — he has simply closed his eyes. He’d take a few practice strokes with his eyes open. He’d then take his stance, stare at the hole and presumably his putting line a couple seconds, then close his eyes and make his stroke. He did it on long putts and short putts.

“Every putt,” he said.

As soon as putter struck ball, he opened his eyes — and often watched the ball go into the cup. It went there often enough for him to close with a final round of five-under-par 67, and a 72 hole total of 19-under 269, one shot better than 2015 Sanderson Farms winner Peter Malnati, who closed with a spectacular 63, his best career round.

This is not to say Garcia had a spectacular day or tournament on the pristine greens at CCJ. He missed some make-able putts, three-putted once, missed some short ones. This is to say that Garcia doesn’t have to putt all that well to win because he hits the ball so phenomenally well.

“When I’m feeling it, I don’t feel like I have to putt well to have a chance to win,” Garcia said. “I feel like I can win with an average or just above average putting week.”

To see it is to believe it. You should have seen the soaring 340-yard drive he hit over tall pine and oak trees to the center of the fairway on the par-4 sixth hole. You should have seen the the 260-yard 5-wood second shot he hit to within three feet of the hole on the par-5 14th hole. That shot resulted in an eagle-3 that brought him even with Malnati.

With pars on the next three holes, Garcia came to the 18th hole, a monster of a 486-yard par-4. That’s when El Nino showed ball-striking at its finest. First he clubbed a 314-yard drive against the breeze to the left side of the fairway. Then, he hit a 172-yard 8-iron that looked for all the world like it might land in the hole. It almost did, leaving him a 30-inch putt for the victory.

On a normal Sunday in the fourth round of a PGA Tournament, such a shot would have brought roars from the gallery. Not this time. There was a smattering of applause from volunteers for what was surely one of the greatest pressure shots in the history of the tournament.

Because of COVID-19, there were no luxury suites surrounding the 18th green, no bleachers, no fans — this despite perfect weather for four straight days. And that seemed such a shame for a tournament that has has battled weather of all types: storms, floods, hurricanes, tornados, stifling heat and you name it for much of its history. Here Sunday, we had the best players in tournament history playing in the best weather in tournament history, and fans could not watch.

Garcia, better than most, understands why such precautions were taken. Afterward, his eyes moistening, Garcia dedicated the victory — his first in more than a year — to his father and his family.

“Unfortunately, my father has a lot of family in Madrid,” Garcia said. “He is one of nine siblings, and unfortunately we lost two of his brothers to COVID, one at the beginning, Uncle Paco, and one just last Saturday, Uncle Angel.

“You know, it’s sad, it’s sad. And I know a lot of families have lost a lot more people, but you never want to lose anyone like that, and I wanted to win this for them.”

And that he did. Now, he’s just a month away from The Masters. We’d be fools to count him out.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.