Spaniard Garcia sets pace at breezy Sawgrass

Spaniard Sergio Garcia, steadily regaining confidence in his putting, took advantage of an early tee-off time to seize a two-stroke lead in the Players Championship first round on Thursday.

Seeking his first PGA Tour title in almost three years, Garcia fired a sparkling six-under-par 66 at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass to take control of the event widely regarded as the unofficial fifth Major.

The 28-year-old piled up seven birdies, four of them in six holes, and a lone bogey in breezy morning conditions to finish two ahead of Americans Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos.

Twice champion Steve Elkington of Australia opened with a 69 to lie three off the pace, level with Britain’s Ian Poulter, Swede Niclas Fasth and Americans Heath Slocum and Todd Hamilton.

On a day when the average score ballooned to 73,716, the late starters had to cope with strengthening winds and sun-baked greens as the firm, fast-running Stadium Course dried out.

Garcia, runner-up at Sawgrass last year, launched his sizzling birdie run at the par-five 11th and holed a monster putt from 40 feet before reaching the turn in four-under 32.

He picked up further shots at the second and fifth before offsetting a three-putt bogey at the eighth with another birdie at the par-five ninth, his final hole.

“The greens were very nice, very quick but rolling very, very true,” a smiling Garcia told reporters after totalling 29 putts. “If you managed to put some good rolls in there, you were going to make some putts.

The Spaniard, whose last PGA Tour victory came at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic, said he had benefited from teeing off in the relative calm of the morning.

“I wouldn’t say it was easy but it was definitely not as tough,” he added.

As for ending his title drought, Garcia believes that is simply a question of time.

Getting closer

“The only thing I can do is keep giving myself chances, and it’s going to happen,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting closer and closer.
At least now I feel like I can do it and it’s just a matter of being able to do it.”

Argentina’s Angel Cabrera, winner of last year’s US Open, had shared the lead with Garcia at five under with six holes remaining before bogeying the 14th and double-bogeying the last for a 70.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who also opened with a 70, was delighted to rebound from consecutive bogeys around the turn.

“The golf course is not easy by any means and to go low out here is very difficult,” the American world number two said after carding five birdies and three bogeys.

“I certainly let some shots slide in the middle of the round but I was proud of the way I came back. I could have let it get to me and affect the rest of the round but fortunately I didn’t.”

Australian Adam Scott, the 2004 champion, and South African world number four Ernie Els were among the late starters.

Scott battled to a 75 while Els was annoyed to double-bogey the treacherous par-three 17th, where he found water off the tee, on his way to a 72.

“Anybody would be wanting to blow 17 up after making six,” Els said. “It’s tough to take. I had played so good all day and just felt like I hit a lot of good shots.”—Reuters

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