Three days on, and I still bask in the warm afterglow of a tremendous weekend of sport. How wonderful it is to be alive if you own a TV.
They say that hold-up horses don’t win the Grand National any more – too many better rivals to catch now, and too much danger-strewn ground to make up. National winners now race up with the pace. Try telling that to winning rider Derek Fox who, only three days after returning from injury, gave One For Arthur a peach of ride. He was rightly praised but didn’t receive the plaudits that a similar performance from a Walsh or Geraghty might have. His timing was sublime, and his patience was central to the success.
Asked before the race what the biggest danger was, partner of trainer Lucinda Russell and ex-champion jockey Peter Scudamore said simply “Luck.” He knew that One For Arthur had to be held up; that was the way to maximise his chances even though it increased the risks. As it was, the biggest scare for Fox was when his mount jumped into the back of Blaklion at the second last but, such was the brilliance of his judgement of pace, even that didn’t halt One For Arthur’s inexorable progress.
Fox epitomised the phrase “hunted around out the back”, and it wasn’t until rounding the home turn that he pressed go and the winner suddenly knew he was in a race. From that point on it would have taken the cruellest of twists of fate to deny Scotland their first victory in the race since Rubstic in 1979.
I had backed One For Arthur, of course (why else would I be waxing lyrical about the event?) as Bet365 were being silly again and giving away each-way singles on the National at half price. Memories of the savage beating I took at Cheltenham were banished – it’s sweet to get the winner of the National, even if it isn’t your only selection. So time to reinvest, and on Sunday morning I reassessed the odds for Augusta glory.
A scintillating third round left the tournament finely poised. Rose 3/1, Spieth 4/1, Fowler 9/2, Garcia 5/1 and 14/1 bar. That said it all, really, about Sergio – joint leader and yet those below him on the leaderboard were above him in the betting. We knew from 18 years and 73 previous majors that Garcia was not to be trusted on the big stage. Sure, that consecutive streak of majors played represents an impressive achievement in itself, to stay injury-free and good enough to qualify, but we all knew that the only meaningful stat for Sergio was the zero – winless, despite so many golden opportunities.
I then did something very strange, and something I haven’t done for at least 15 years. I backed Sergio to win a major. Part sober analysis, part fairytale seeking?
Those that know me will tell you that the Ryder Cup plays a grotesquely large role in my life, and for me Sergio finally grew up in Minnesota last year. Battling a red scoreboard and partisan crowd, he put in a performance of supreme confidence to deny Phil Mickelson the victory. Europe went on to lose, but he erased the memories of some flaky Singles matches in previous Ryder Cups as he finished with four birdies to shoot a 63. In that moment, and at the ripe old age of 36, he finally became a man, just like his rival on Sunday Justin Rose had in the 2012 Singles (again, against the unfortunate but sporting Mickelson) before going on to US Open victory in 2013.
The only time I have met Sergio in the flesh was at the Pro-Am on Wentworth Wednesday in 2013, and a surly and miserable figure he cut as he trudged around the course. I was carrying my European flag in the hope that I could get the victorious Medinah team members to sign the gold stars, and had been fairly successful until he brushed past me with disdain. But the fact that I wanted to call my first-born Monty (before my wife intervened) demonstrates that I can forgive golfers most character flaws if they become Ryder Cup legends, and even a tortured soul like Sergio had now joined the club after his 2016 heroics.
What he demonstrated at the 2017 Masters – more than passion, courage and skill – was patience, both in the final round when it seemed to be edging away from him, and over the past 20 years as he transitioned from wonderkid to nearly-man through a series of missed opportunities and savage disappointments. He famously said at Augusta five years ago “I’m not good enough” but on Sunday he ripped an incredible eagle out of the heart of the 15th green and went on to deny Justin Rose in a playoff.
There were wobbles, sure, but this time he overcame them and holed a birdie putt at the first extra hole before letting out a roar that came from somewhere deep in his soul, a place once so desolate that it seemed incapable of emitting anything. If Derek Fox and One For Arthur had been patient on Sunday, Sergio’s patience had been sorely tested over almost two decades, and it showed in that guttural release on the 18th green.
The harsh realities of competitive sport can be an ugly place to search for justice, but this time the Gods of Probability had tilted the scales towards redemption.