With U.S. Open ahead, Akins gives Garcia inspiration, motivation

Sergio Garcia watches anxiously as the most important putt of his career, the one he has been waiting a lifetime for, trickles toward the hole. He sees the ball curl to the left, catch the edge of the cup and disappear. What happens next for the brand new Masters champion is purely instinctual.

His eyes grow big. He howls, "Yes!" He bends at the waist, his head nearly tucked between his knees as he clenches both fists triumphantly.

Standing outside the ropes, maybe 20 yards away, is Angela Akins. A television replay, broadcast all over the world just a minute later, shows her in the background, watching the scene unfold. While the gallery around her leaps in unison, a gaggle of arms raised in jubilation, her actions instead mimic those of her fiancé, as she bends at the waist and raises both hands to her head.

The resulting video clip provides a stunning visual. Everybody within the frame doing one thing, Sergio and Angela doing something totally different, yet together. This was hardly a choreographed celebration, but perhaps the synchronicity shouldn't come as a surprise.

"We thought it was cute and funny and kind of amazing at the same time," Garcia said after the couple recently rewatched a Spanish-language version of the telecast that included the same replay. "I did what I felt, and she did exactly what she felt. It just happened that it was a very similar reaction."

Maybe it's purely coincidental that Garcia, who is looking to win his second straight major this week at the U.S. Open after going 0-for-73 in career major championships, just happened to win his first one as an engaged man. Maybe that barrier he needed to overcome had nothing to do with better swings under pressure or better swing thoughts.

In the hours after his victory, the green jacket still draped across his shoulders, Garcia was asked in interviews about Akins' impact on his professional career. He spoke lovingly of the woman he plans to marry next month in her hometown of Austin, Texas, but also offered only vague details. For example: He alluded to the "cute and beautiful" notes she'd posted around their Augusta, Georgia, rental house that week but never divulged their intent.

Akins wanted Garcia to spend his week both inspired and confident. On Masters-green Post-It notes, she wrote a handful of inspirational quotes from sources as widely varied as Buddha, Theodore Roosevelt, Audrey Hepburn and Seve Ballesteros.

She also wrote some herself and had others do the same -- from relatives, friends, even one of Garcia's golfing heroes, Jose Maria Olazabal.

"I told them they could write whatever they wanted," she said, "but just to kind of prompt them, [I said] maybe just tell him why you love him and why you know he can win this week."

They first met two years ago at the Shell Houston Open. Akins was recently divorced and working as a reporter for Golf Channel. A standout basketball player and golfer who competed in the latter at the University of Texas, she envisioned a professional athletic career until injuries derailed that dream.

The backup plan? In her mind, it was the next-best thing. She soon started covering football and other sports before being hired by Golf Channel to cover the sport on a full-time basis.

Garcia, whose personal life has often been tabloid fodder over the years, simply answered her questions in front of a television camera, and that was that.

"There was nothing [romantic]," he says now. "Nothing for a while."

Over the next few months, they would become friendly on a professional level. Every so often, Garcia would post a low round, and Akins would be there to interview him afterward. But according to her, it wasn't until early 2016 that he finally asked her out.

All of which, she says, led to a weighty decision: She felt like she had to choose between her career and Garcia.

"I did feel that, because I was forced to feel that way," she says.

Akins maintains that there were no provisions in her contract that would prohibit her from having a relationship with a player.

"Nothing was ever in writing. Believe me, I checked. I read everything that I signed."

According to a Golf Channel spokesperson, the company has a long-standing policy which states reporters are not allowed to date players on tours they cover.

"If it had been up to me, I would have continued to do what I was doing and found a way to make it work and just test the waters, but that's not how it worked out," she says. "That wasn't the opportunity that I was given, and I accept that. I had a wonderful time when I was at Golf Channel. ... I think it's amazing how everything works out. I made all those great friends, and now I still get to see them, just in a different role."

While Akins no longer interviews Garcia after a round, she believes that having been an athlete and reporter helps her better relate to him.

Garcia, who five years ago left Augusta National in a huff after the third round, insisting that he could never win there, now has a valuable sounding board.

"She's played golf at a high level, and she knows what's going on," he says. "Because of that, I can give her some insights, and then it makes her understand."

Garcia first employed a University of Texas headcover at last year's Ryder Cup, catching the attention of Jordan Spieth, who attended the school. Garcia has already become a "real Texan," according to Marty Akins, Angela's father, who was an All-America quarterback for the Longhorns.

He has already had Garcia run some patterns while he tosses him the pigskin and has been impressed with his athleticism.

"He would've been a dad-gum good football player," Marty says. "He's a tough cookie."

Marty has also supplied his soon-to-be son-in-law with a bow and boots, and yes, he has even taken Garcia hunting multiple times on his 1,250-acre ranch.

If that sounds like it would be fuel for a hilarious story, you're right.

On the Friday before Masters week, Marty took Sergio and Sergio's father, Victor, hog hunting on the ranch. The three of them were walking through some tall grass when Sergio, who was carrying a rifle, spotted something moving by their feet.

"He screamed," Marty says. "I stopped. There's a rattlesnake. He had the gun, so I said, 'Shoot him!'"

As Victor took off running in the opposite direction, Sergio hastily handed the gun to Marty, who shot the snake.

"Thank goodness he yelled," Marty says. "He definitely would have stepped on him."

It only enhances Garcia's new "real Texan" image that his first PGA Tour victory with Angela by his side came at last year's AT&T Byron Nelson, just outside of Dallas, a few hours down the road from Akins' home.

Of course, he'd already won that same title a dozen years earlier. Garcia's triumph at the Masters, though, after nearly two decades of close calls and heartache, was the stuff of serendipity.

Considering his major record pre-Angela, it should at least have us pondering this question: Would he still have won without his fiancée in his life?

"I don't know," he says. "It's difficult to say. Obviously, looking at it now, no, because I won it with her."

There's a difference between Sergio and most other professional golfers. For the others, their moods are largely based on whether they've played well. For him, though, the reaction has often been the opposite. If he's in the right frame of mind, then he plays better.

All of which could explain the recent transformation from world-class golfer to Masters champion.

"I've always known that I was a good player," he says. "But I think everybody's help has definitely made me believe it even more, and probably that's why at the Masters this year, I kept telling myself, 'It's your time, it's your time, you're playing great, you're going to do it, it's your time, just keep believing, don't give up, just keep going, just keep going' -- even on the couple little tough moments that we had. Yeah, it's obviously helped."

Akins agrees.

"We all tell him all the time how amazing he is to make him believe in himself, because we know how good he is."

Garcia knew it, too, during Masters week. The message was literally posted all over the walls -- from relatives and friends and even his heroes. He knew he was good enough to win a green jacket, largely in part because they reminded him he was good enough.

Akins understands she has raised the bar for these pre-major pep rallies. If the Augusta rental house featured Masters-green Post-It notes with inspirational words all over the place, she'll need to figure out a way to top that before this week's U.S. Open.

"Don't worry," she says with a coy smile while looking in the direction of Garcia. "I'll have something up my sleeve."