April 12, 2013

Garcia finds peace, and lead, at Masters

Late Thursday evening, in the dying light at the Augusta National Golf Club, Sergio Garcia moved through a pack of fans just off the 18th green. He had finished his first round of the Masters, and he began the short walk back to the clubhouse.

Late Thursday evening, in the dying light at the Augusta National Golf Club, Sergio Garcia moved through a pack of fans just off the 18th green. He had finished his first round of the Masters, and he began the short walk back to the clubhouse.

This is the place where an embattled Garcia nearly gave in, the tournament where Garcia once wondered if he’d ever win a major. This is the place that, just one year ago, nearly broke his spirit. And now he was back, walking past the first tee and putting green, holding a share of the lead after shooting a 6-under 66 on the opening day of the 77th Masters.

“It’s obviously not my favorite … (not) my most favorite place,” Garcia would say later.

If you saw or heard Garcia last April, you might consider these words a slight understatement. After a disappointing third round in last year’s Masters, Garcia told reporters from his native Spain that he did not have “the thing” to win major championships. For a player with world-class skills — a former teenage phenom once known as “El Nino” — it was a devastating self-assessment.

One year later, after making six birdies and settling into a first-place tie with Marc Leishman, a former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Garcia spent a few moments attempting to qualify that ominous declaration.

“We all go through those moments,” Garcia said. “The beauty and the bad thing about this game is that … it can have such highs and such lows, because it’s a lot more mental than some of the other games.”

Garcia is older now, armed with the sort of perspective that comes with experience and time. He’s 33 now, and nearly 14 years removed from his first appearance on the world stage, a breakthrough performance at the 1999 PGA Championship. On that Sunday at Medinah, a 19-year-old Garcia went toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods, finishing second in the process, and it certainly felt like major championships were preordained.

But the years passed, and the titles never came. Garcia suffered a heart-breaking playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at the 2007 British Open and then finished second to Harrington again at the 2008 PGA Championship. From 2005 to 2008, he missed the cut at the Masters three times. And last year, the frustration boiled over.

“We go through times … everybody, even Tiger has gone through that stretch where he was struggling,” Garcia said. “Obviously he wasn’t feeling as comfortable and he wasn’t as confident.”

This opening round was supposed to be about Woods, the dominant force who once cast an intimidating shadow over Garcia and the rest of his generation. Woods, once again the No. 1 player in the world, was poised to show off in his latest incarnation, a resurgent superstar ready to win his first major in nearly five years.

Woods has won three tournaments this year, and on Thursday morning, he showed up at Augusta National with new girlfriend Lindsey Vonn, a gold-medalist skier who strolled around the grounds in a beige sundress and floppy-brimmed hat.

On the surface, the image of Vonn standing near the first tee made for a convincing narrative. Maybe this was a new Tiger.

But by the time Woods made the turn in the early afternoon, Vonn was moving back toward the clubhouse, and Woods was venting his frustration after a mediocre approach shot on the par-4 No. 11.

“How the (expletive) does it do that?” Woods said, his mild outburst picked up by a nearby television microphone.

Woods would finish with a 2-under 70, good enough to keep him in the hunt, but not the first-day warning shot that some were anticipating. So now, Woods must chase Garcia.

“My goal is to play the best I can and have a chance at winning,” Garcia said.

All these years later, Garcia is still one of the game’s more intriguing personalities. He has a reputation for playing slowly, and putting erratically, and sometimes exposing some fragile emotions.

Earlier this year, after hitting a ball into a tree in a tournament at Bay Hill, Garcia stubbornly shimmied up the branches and attempted an awkward shot from a low-hanging branch. Soon after, he withdrew from the tournament.

“One thing is for sure. If I hit on top of a tree here, there’s no chance of getting to that hole because the branches are 60 feet high,” Garcia said Monday.”

Despite all the close calls and major-championship torment, Garcia still has the talent to win. On Thursday, he shot a blistering 32 on the front nine, and then said afterward that his round could have been even better if he’d putted better in the early going. For one day, Garcia appeared calm and confident in a place that he once appeared to loathe.

For the next three days, Garcia will have more opportunities to prove that he has evolved and matured into a player that still believes in himself.

“Sometimes I do feel like there is such a thing as being too … you know, too hyper about something,” Garcia said.

“You’ve still got to keep calm. I’ve obviously changed as a player. I’m not the same way I was when I was 19.”

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