Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2013

Sergio Surges, But It’s Only Thursday

It’s almost certain that by Sunday evening the story will have moved on. Perhaps the headline then will be about a triumphant Tiger Woods renewing his march on the lifetime record of 18 major championships. Perhaps it will be about Dustin Johnson or Rickie Fowler or Matt Kuchar winning his first major, to pick three popular Americans who ended Thursday in one of the top ten spots on the leader board. But before the spotlight turns away, let us take a moment to consider the golfer who stood in its brilliance after the first round of the Masters.

Because he burst onto the scene while still a teenager, it is easy to forget that Sergio Garcia is still just 33 years old. That’s the same age that Phil Mickelson was when Lefty won his first major at the 2004 Masters. Like Mickelson back then, Garcia has long been on most short lists for the one golfing crown no one wants to wear, that of “best golfer never to have won a major.” With ten European Tour wins including two in the fall of 2011, and eight more on the PGA Tour including the Wyndham Championship last August, Garcia has had plenty of success on both sides of the Atlantic. But in the game’s most coveted events he has always come up short, though he has certainly had his chances. In another parallel with the Mickelson of 2004, Garcia arrived at Augusta with 17 top-ten finishes in the majors.

The most famous of those still remains the very first; also the Spaniard’s first major as a professional. At the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club the 19-year old Garcia displayed both youthful exuberance and a fully mature game as he surged to the first round lead. A second round 73 left him four strokes adrift, but Garcia battled through the weekend as he and Woods moved in tandem up the leader board. In the end the joy with which he played then was not enough to overcome a Tiger moving into the prime of his career; Garcia finished in 2nd place, one behind the red-shirted champion.

Perhaps his best chance to claim that elusive first major title came at Carnoustie in 2007, when Garcia stood on the 18th tee needing but a level par four at the last to take possession of the Claret Jug. But after having to wait in the fairway for what must have seemed like hours while a caddy for the group ahead meticulously raked a bunker long after the two golfers and other caddy had departed the green, Garcia dumped his approach directly into the sand at which he had been forced to stare. His escape came up short, and when the par-saving putt slid past the hole, Garcia stood bent over and motionless, perhaps contemplating what might have been. The Open Championship produced a first-time major champion that day, but it was Padraig Harrington, who beat Garcia in the ensuing four hole playoff.

A career with its full quota of ups and downs, the direction of the roller coaster often dictated by Garcia’s level of comfort with the putter, has sapped much of the exuberance that the teenager displayed in suburban Chicago. Yet his return to the winner’s circle after an absence of more than three years, first in Europe and then last year on the PGA Tour, served to remind golf fans that when his head is in the right place Garcia still has plenty of game.

Still one would not pick Augusta National as the most likely venue for a major breakthrough for El Nino, given the premium placed on putting by the course’s hard and slick greens. It’s no surprise that only 2 of his 17 top-ten finishes in the majors have come at the Masters. Yet when play ended on Thursday, there was Garcia, tied with Australian Marc Leishman at the top of the leader board after a bogey-free round of 66. He got there with solid iron play, which has always been a strength of his game. Despite missing half of Augusta National’s generous fairways he hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation, a statistic bettered by only three players in the field. Once on the green he putted well enough, though his one hiccup came on the 13th hole. After negotiating the dogleg off the tee and finding the putting surface of the par-5 with a fine second shot, Garcia faced a lengthy and unlikely try for eagle. But he not only failed to make that, he squandered what had seemed a certain birdie by recording his one 3-putt of the day.

Still a 66 is a fine day’s work, and it’s always good to be first. Except when maybe it isn’t. The Masters is a unique event in so many ways. The exquisite setting for the millions of fans watching on television; which I can confirm from a single personal experience is even more beautiful, and a lot hillier, in person. The supremely difficult challenges of the 11th and 12th holes, the first two-thirds of Amen Corner, where many Masters dreams have drowned in Rae’s Creek. The risk-reward par-5s coming in, where one golfer can score a rallying three even as his playing partner records an agonizing eight. The orderly patrons and hushed television announcers add to the aura and ensure that even the casual fan knows this is no ordinary tournament. But in one critical way the Masters is like every bank or insurance company sponsored weekly stop on the PGA Tour. Whether it’s the challenge of maintaining mental focus through four long days of play, or the pressure of knowing everyone in the field is chasing as hard as they can, first round leaders seldom go on to victory.

Winner Horton Smith led or held a share of the lead after every round of the inaugural Masters in 1934, but since then only 14 other first round leaders have managed to still be leading when play ended on Sunday evening. No one has done it since Trevor Immelman in 2008, and before the South African’s triumph one has to go back more than two decades to find another first round leader turned champion. Perhaps Sergio can overcome the odds. Perhaps the parallels of age and previous close calls to Mickelson in 2004 are omens. Or perhaps not. The heavy weight of history, both at the Masters and on the PGA Tour in general, suggests that as fine as it was, Garcia’s opening round is almost certainly also a harbinger of yet another major disappointment.

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