Sergio Garcia might have written himself off too quickly at the Masters. When last seen walking off the course at Augusta National,the impetuous Spaniard was moping about his bad luck at this tournament and said last year it was increasingly evident he would never be fitted for a green jacket.
Garcia matched his best score at the Masters on Thursday,a 6-under 66 with no bogeys on his card,to share the lead with Marc Leishman of Australia. And he still wasnt entirely happy,although this time with good reason. He hit the ball so well his score could have been so much better.
To tell you the truth,if I manage to make a couple of the 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. And it wasnt like I was hitting pitching wedge every single time. I was hitting 4-irons and 5-irons and 6-irons,so it wasnt that easy.
It sure felt easy for several players in a gentle opening round even for a high school student.
Guan Tianlang,the 14-year-old from China and youngest to compete in a major in 148 years,played well beyond his age and 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 wasnt 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 spectators hand,Woods settled into a groove and opened with a 70.
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.
Theyre soft and they are slow,and consequently we have 45 people at par or better, Mickelson said. But that means Ive got to change my whole mindset and just get after these pins,because the balls not running like it used to and Im giving this course way too much respect because of my past knowledge.
Its 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.
Its obviously not my most favorite place, he said. But you know,we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here. Sometimes it comes out better than others,but today it was one of those good days. Lets enjoy it while it lasts.
That was a far different attitude than last year on the weekend,when he went from one shot out of the lead going into the third round to back in the pack with a 75. He told Spanish reporters that day he had been trying his entire career to win a major and I dont feel capable of winning. … After 13 years,my chances are over. Im not good enough for the majors. Thats it.
Composure is everything to Garcia,a 33-year-old 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 withdrew a few holes later when the rain arrived.
He smiles. He sulks. And he always says what hes thinking,which sometimes gets him in trouble. Garcia doesnt regret his comments at Augusta last year,only that he didnt choose his words carefully. He chalked it up to frustration,but says he is trying just as hard as he did when he was 19 and challenged Woods at Medinah in the 1999 PGA.
Leishman was the first player to post at 66,a moderate surprise considering he missed the cut in his only Masters appearance in 2010,and he had failed to break 70 in his last nine rounds on the PGA Tour dating to the first week in March.