PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Sergio Garcia was warming up Thursday for his first competitive round since his victory at the Masters last month. Setting up at the very end of the range, closest to TPC Sawgrass practice greens, Garcia took longer than usual to get through the clubs in his bag, through no fault of his own.
Players and caddies on their way to start their opening rounds of the Players Championship kept stopping him to offer their congratulations. It had been that way since Monday, Garcia said.
"It almost feels like they wanted me to win it more than I did," he said.
He added, "Very touching."
Garcia opened with a 1-over 73 that included an ace on the course's iconic par-3 17th island hole. He was six strokes behind the co-leaders, William McGirt and Mackenzie Hughes, who opened with 67s. And yet all week Garcia had been the center of attention.
Four days before the start of this tournament, which he won in 2008, Garcia sat cross-legged on a chair in the 16th floor presidential suite of a hotel outside Orlando. Soon, he would be on his way to a surprise appearance at an American Junior Golf Association event that he sponsors. But first, he would conduct an interview in the living area while his fiancee Angela Akins' black Pomeranian, Bear, stood with his nose pressed against the glass of the double doors separating the rooms.
The dog was staring at Garcia.
"Bear is obsessed with Sergio," Akins said with a laugh.
Over his career, Garcia has had that effect on a lot of people, from friends to business contacts to, finally, the woman who was the real prize that had long eluded him.
Akins, 31, is the newest member of Garcia's inner circle by easily a decade. In a world that revolves around results, Garcia, a native of Spain, has always placed a premium on relationships. For most of his professional career, except for a temporary separation in 2014, he has had the same caddie, Glen Murray of South Africa.
From the start, Garcia, 37, has been more interested in building friendships than rivalries.
"It doesn't mean I'm not competitive, because I'm very competitive," Garcia said. "But I think there's a way of trying to win by being normal like you are on a Tuesday or Wednesday with your friends and there's a way of being a little over the edge with a little bit of gamesmanship and stuff like that. And I've never been comfortable doing that. It's not the way I was brought up."
As he settled into his 30s, Garcia longed for romance. He had been almost as unlucky in love as he had been in the majors, with a string of high-profile relationships that didn't pan out.
"I remember having dinner with him one time a few years ago," said Jason Day, the former world No. 1, "and he wanted to settle down and have kids. He just couldn't find the right girl."
Garcia was coming off a broken engagement when he met Akins in the spring of 2015, during one of her first events after being hired as a reporter for the Golf Channel.
Akins played competitive golf through college in her native Texas, first at Texas Christian and then at the University of Texas. She was working for a Fox Sports affiliate in Texas — covering a lot of high school football — when she was hired by the Golf Channel.
Those who worked with her at the Golf Channel described her as a hardworking and collegial colleague who would pitch in wherever needed. Akins was taken aback when, several months into her job, Garcia asked her out on a date. She was conflicted when their relationship deepened, forcing her to choose between her personal and professional lives.
"I really, really thought about it," she said. "Sergio was so kind and so supportive, and I think that's why we got to where we are."
Since he announced his engagement to Akins at the start of this year, Garcia has risen seven spots in the world rankings, to sixth. "She's helped me in every aspect, for sure," he said.
Akins is more of a fitness fanatic than Garcia, who can happily spend the day on a couch watching soccer and Formula One racing. He likes to play golf but sometimes must be prodded to hit the practice range to work on his mechanics.
On those occasions, Akins will resort to the motivational ploy that her father, Marty Akins, a retired NFL quarterback, used to great effect on her when she was growing up: "If you don't want to practice, fine. But if you don't practice, know that someone else is and they're getting better than you."
Garcia said Akins is a master motivator.
"She's a competitor," he said, "and it kind of brings a little extra fire out of me."
If Garcia had any questions about Akins' being the one, they were answered on the Saturday of last year's Ryder Cup in Minnesota. During a morning match, Garcia and his countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello played Americans Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth.
The Spaniards were two down when they arrived at the 16th hole, and after the players hit their tee shots, a few young men in the crowd started heckling Garcia: chanting "zero majors" plenty loud enough for him to hear.
Akins coolly approached them and, without identifying herself as Garcia's girlfriend, told them that as an American she was embarrassed by their display. She appealed to them to be more respectful in a polite dressing down that drew applause from the people around the hecklers.
Cabrera Bello heard the clapping and looked over, then pointed out what was happening to Garcia, who tapped his chest a couple of times, so touched was he that Akins had his back.
That afternoon, Akins ran into the young men, who by then had figured out who she was. They gave her a hug and told her to tell Garcia that they were sorry for how they had behaved.
Akins is equally quick to call out Garcia if he is acting poorly.
Garcia was referring first and foremost to her when he credited his newfound calmness on the course to the people around him who, he said, "care about you and tell you things the way they are when they have to."
Garcia has cultivated such relationships with his peers as well.
Thirteen days after his Masters victory, Garcia and Akins attended Rory McIlroy's wedding in Ireland. The night before the ceremony, McIlroy greeted Garcia with a rib-rattling hug. McIlroy, after finishing his own round at Augusta National, had cried while he watched the broadcast of Garcia snapping his 0-for-73 streak in major tournaments.
McIlroy said he became emotional "just to see what he's been through, and his struggles."
He added, "I'm getting goose bumps even talking about it."
And Spieth, who won the 2015 Masters in his eighth major appearance as a professional, was among the dozens of players who sent congratulatory texts after Garcia's birdie on the first playoff hole. His began: "Welcome to the Masters club."
Spieth, who remembered the hecklers from last year's Ryder Cup, said, "He's got to walk around with a smile on his face for the next couple years just like, 'I told you so.' "
Though McIlroy was teary-eyed after Garcia's victory at the Masters, Garcia was not. For someone who wears his emotions like a sponsor's patch, he was eerily equable. But he expects it will be different in July, when he takes his next major step and marries Akins in front of a congregation that will include McIlroy, who will be a groomsman.
At McIlroy's wedding, Garcia told Akins that he expected to shed tears when they exchanged their vows.
It makes sense. By the time he won the green jacket, Garcia already had the girl who made his life feel complete.