With growing confidence in his balky putting stroke and superb ball-striking that has become his hallmark, Garcia birdied all the par 5s and picked up a bonus birdie with a 50-foot putt on the 14th hole to build a two-shot lead on the frightening Stadium Course.
It was a good step toward ending an 0-for-53 drought on the PGA Tour, the longest of his career.
At the end of the day, the only thing I can do is keep working on it, keep giving myself chances, and its going to happen, Garcia said. I feel like Im getting closer and closer. At least now, I feel like I can do it, and its just a matter of being able to do it.
Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos each had a 68 in the mild, morning breeze on a perfectly conditioned golf course. Sawgrass turned tricky, if not downright difficult, in the afternoon, and Ernie Els was among those who paid dearly.
Els was at 2 under until his wedge came up 20 feet short of the island green on the 17th, and he barely kept his third shot on land. He wound up with a triple bogey, and a 12-foot birdie on the final hole for a 70 didnt improve his spirits much.
I think they should blow it up, Els said. Everything you worked for in 4 1/2 hours, in one shot its all gone.
Of the 34 players who broke par in the opening round, only eight played in the afternoon in the increasingly blustery conditions. Todd Hamilton was the best among late starters with a 69, while Wachovia winner Anthony Kim rallied for a 70.
Even though this tournament has a diverse list of champions, it was no less surprising to see Goydos so high up the leaderboard. He had never broken 70 in his nine previous appearances.
Skipping 18 was a good idea, though, Goydos said.
Goydos hit one of 19 balls into the water on the 17th, but he scrambled for a bogey and rode that momentum to four birdies over his next six holes.
Phil Mickelson, trying to become the first player in the history of this tournament to successfully defend his title, was flirting with the leaders until a sloppy middle to his round put him at 70. Coming off consecutive birdies, including a wedge to 4 feet on the 17th, Mickelson failed to reach the 18th green from the right rough, then made bogey from 95 yards away in the middle of the fairway on No. 1.
I feel as though Im turning 66s into 70s, and Im going to have to fix that this weekend, he said. Im going to have to stop letting those shots slide in the middle of the round that are costing me in the end. But I would have taken anything under par starting the day.
Mickelson won by two shots last year over Garcia, even though the Spaniard was never really in the mix. Garcia was the runner-up when Sean OHair put two in the water on the 17th to slide down the leaderboard.
Even so, Garcia finished 67-66, and one year later, nothing has slowed his momentum.
In his 10th year as a pro, Garcia has been an enigma. No other player younger than Tiger Woods has contended so often in the majors and showed so much variety in his game.
Hes like Tiger, Goydos said. His go-to shot is the shot thats needed.
But frustration has been setting in over three winless seasons, dating to the old Booz Allen Classic at Congressional, and Garcia recently turned to putting guru Stan Utley for help. This was a major move, for Garcia has relied almost exclusively on his father for help.
My main idea was to get back to the way I used to putt, like 10 or 12 years ago, when I was a good putter, Garcia said. At least now I have some rounds where I come out and say I actually shot what I should have shot, and not come out and think, I should have been four or five shots better which is always not very nice.
And after one round, Garcia did not say he was playing more than just the field.
He is tied with Adam Scott for most PGA Tour victories (six) by players under 30, although it was hard to fathom how he could go nearly three years without winning.
Its not secret to anybody that hes been struggling with his putting for a little while, but as soon as he gets it right, we all know hes going to be winning, said Ian Poulter, among five players at 69. I know hes working hard, and Im sure hell be in the winners circle as soon as he gets it right. It may be this week. If hes putting well this week, then who knows? And watch out.
Garcia had only one bogey, a three-putt on the par-3 eighth, and that was no disgrace. His ball came up short of a mound that looked like an elephant burial ground, and he missed the 8-footer for par. But he answered with a pair of 3-woods on the par-5 ninth, followed by a simple up-and-down to end his day with a birdie.
He also made birdie from the bunker on the par-5 11th, chipped to 4 feet on the par-5 second and two-putted for birdie on the 16th.
Typical of this tournament, there were plenty of scores under par, and an equal amount of big numbers. Someone asked Garcia if he felt the Stadium Course was more fair on Thursday.
Its always fair, he said. Its just a matter of being tougher or easier.
Garcia is 17-under par over his last three rounds, so it must feel awfully easy. All he needs now is a trophy to show for it.