By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sergio Garcia had an enjoyable day on a course that’s never been one of his favorites.
The shots were true. The putter was steady. The score was good enough for the Masters lead.
Now comes the hard part: holding it together for another three days.
“We’ll see what happens,” Garcia said, sounding a bit apprehensive.
For the impetuous Spaniard, that’s always been the conundrum. How can a golfer of such talent have gone this long without winning a major title? Why does he keep blowing it on golf’s biggest stages?
Well, here he is again, sharing the top spot with Marc Leishman after a 6-under 66 Thursday, ripping up Augusta National with a performance that came with only one complaint: It could’ve been even better.
That it happened in the Masters was even more remarkable, considering this is the one major where Garcia has never been much of a factor.
“Obviously, it’s not my most favorite place,” he said. “We try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here. Sometimes it comes out better than others, but today is was one of those days. You know, let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
In recent years, Garcia seemed resigned to the perception that time had passed him by — even at the relatively young age of 33.
Until Thursday, he had not led in any round of a major since the British Open at Carnoustie in 2007, when he set the pace the first three days but lost — of course — to Padraig Harrington in a playoff.
That was the latest in a series of bitter disappointments, of close-but-no-cigar calls in every major championship but the Masters, where he has only two top-10 finishes in his previous 14 appearances.
Last year, he shot himself out of contention during a dismal third round and bluntly declared he just didn’t have the game or temperament to win a major championship — certainly not at Augusta.
“Maybe I didn’t say it the right way because it was one of those frustrating moments,” he conceded.
There was none of that frustration on the opening day of this Masters. The first 10 holes might’ve been as good as Garcia can play, a 5-under score he made look downright easy.
“If I manage to make a couple of putts that kind of stayed around the lip, I could have been probably 7- or 8-under par through 10,” Garcia said. “It was that good.”
We’ve seen this from him before, just not over the entire four days of a major.
That will be the big question when he tees off Friday morning after heavy overnight rains soaked the course, perhaps setting up another day of low scores.
“Every time I tee it off, I try to play as well as I can, hope that my best that week is really, really good,” he said. “My best was pretty good, and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing the next three days. It will be really nice.”
Plenty of players took advantage of the gentle conditions.
Even an eighth-grader.
Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China and youngest to compete in a major in 148 years, played well beyond his age. He holed a 15-foot putt from just off the 18th green for a respectable round of 73 and a reasonable chance of making the cut.
Tiger Woods wasn’t far off as he began his quest for a fifth green jacket. Wild at the start, including a tee shot that knocked a cup of beer out of a spectator’s hand, Woods settled into a groove and opened with a 70 as his girlfriend, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, watched on a few holes.
In his four Masters wins, Woods has never opened with a score lower than 70. His key is not to shoot himself out of the tournament.
“It’s a good start,” he said. “Some years, some guys shot 65 starting out here. But right now, I’m only four back and I’m right there.”
Garcia and Leishman had a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson, who has a game that fits perfectly for Augusta and he finally brought it. Johnson hit a 9-iron for his second shot on the par-5 13th and made a 15-foot eagle putt, and he smashed his drive on the par-5 15th and hit pitching wedge just through the green for an easy birdie.
Fred Couples, the 53-year-old wonder at his favorite major, made bogey on the 18th and still was in the large group at 68. There were a dozen rounds in the 60s, and nearly half the field shot par or better. Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson recovered from a rough start by running off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine to salvage a 71, while Rory McIlroy had a 72.
Woods said he struggled with the slower pace of the greens, and so did defending champion Bubba Watson, who opened with a 75.
“They’re soft and they are slow, and consequently we have 45 people at par or better,” Mickelson said. “But that means I’ve got to change my whole mindset and just get after these pins, because the ball’s not running like it used to and I’m giving this course way too much respect because of my past knowledge.”
It’s not about respect for Garcia. Augusta National is the ultimate love-hate relationship, and Thursday was a rarity.
He loved it.
Garcia began his round with an approach that danced by the hole and left him a tap-in birdie. He rolled in a 20-foot birdie on the par-3 sixth, and then shot up the leaderboard with a pair of tough, downhill putts from 8 feet on the ninth and 15 feet on the 10th.
Will this be the week he finally — FINALLY! — breaks through?
Adam Scott, who is playing with Garcia the first two days, said it’s never out of the question. Never mind that 0-for-57 mark in the majors.
“He’s got more than potential to win any tournament he plays in,” Scott said.
Garcia will admit he sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him, which is not exactly the way to deal with trying to hold yourself together over four of the sport’s most stressful days.
But Scott doesn’t think for a minute that Garcia has given up on the idea of winning a major title.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve and I’m sure that’s how he felt at the time he said it,” the Aussie said. “So I think it’s a bit of a throwaway line. I don’t think he’s living by that at all.”
Garcia struggled off the tee on the back nine, and he three-putted for par at the 13th. He also made tough par saves on the 11th and 17th for his first bogey-free round at the Masters since 2002.
“The last eight holes mean a lot that I kept my composure, even though I didn’t hit it as well as I did the first 10 holes,” he said.
Composure is everything to Garcia, who still acts like a kid. Only three weeks ago, he hit a tee shot at Bay Hill that settled on a large branch in a tree. Garcia climbed the tree, played a remarkable backhanded shot to the fairway and then jumped some 10 feet to the ground.
He needed no such escapes on Day 1 at Augusta.
Now, if he can just hold it together for three more days.
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