PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The scowl? Replaced by a buoyant smile. Those three wayward shots that found watery graves? Replaced by six birdies. That depressing final-round score of 76? Replaced by a promising 67.
If there exists an equal and opposite reaction to Sergio Garcia’s finish at last year’s Players Championship, it might have occurred in the opening round of this week’s edition, as he pulled off an impressive reversal of fortune to find himself just four strokes off the lead.
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano has known Garcia for more than two decades, ever since they were 10 years old, and, as he recalls it, his friend was beating everyone else by 10 strokes every week.
He also remembers a more recent time, when Garcia wasn’t having much fun playing the game and he tried to offer some advice.
“He was a bit grumpy on the course, and he never seemed to enjoy what he was doing,” Fernandez-Castano recalled. “I said, ‘Sergio, you do not have to do this if you don't enjoy it. You know what I mean? You're a millionaire; you have a fantastic family, they're all healthy, they love you. You don't have to play golf if you don't have fun.’”
Last year’s tournament seemed like one of those times. Despite contending for the title, Garcia’s week was a whirlwind of headline-grabbing comments and cringe-inducing shots down the stretch. He questioned third-round playing partner Tiger Woods’ timing in pulling a club from his bag, then later maintained, “I'm not going to lie, he is not my favorite guy to play with. He's not the nicest guy on Tour.” Tied for the lead with two holes to play on Sunday afternoon, Garcia rinsed two shots in the infamous water surrounding the par-3 17th hole and another on the last.
When he finally emerged from the course, Garcia appeared exhausted and battered. He looked like he wanted to crawl inside one of Pete Dye’s fiendish pot bunkers and bury his head.
“You go through up and downs in your life, in your career, and I've had really, really good times, really, really happy times, and then I've had times that were a little bit more down,” he assessed after Thursday’s opening round. “It's just the way of life. I think it happens to all of us.”
These have been happier times. He is head over heels with his new flame, Katharine Boehm. And his golf game has fallen in line, with 13 top-20 finishes in his last 14 worldwide starts, including a pair of victories.
All of which leads to a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Does being happy lead to better golf or does better golf lead to being happy?
“It's a lot more spotty than when you're feeling good,” he said. “Mainly because I think when you're going through a rough patch, you seem to, I wouldn't say give up, but you seem to not fight as hard. Like when you're going through a good time, you make a bogey, and you're like, you're not happy about it, but you're like, let's try to get it back. When you're going through a bad patch, you make a bogey, and it's like, oh, here we go again.
“I don't know, the mind is a beautiful thing.”
Just a few weeks after Garcia told a television crew that he didn’t want to speak about the past, especially last year’s controversies surrounding his comments about Woods, he sat in the interview room at TPC Sawgrass and mowed down all questions like a series of uphill 2-foot putts.
He spoke with honesty and candor, even when Woods’ name was invoked.
“I think it's over,” Garcia said. “I think it's past. I didn't think I was a villain, but I think that we've all moved ahead of that. I certainly have. I'm just looking forward to now and hopefully what's coming soon.”
Yes, these are certainly happier days for him. That scowl has – for now, at least – been replaced by a smile, his place on the leaderboard echoing those emotions.
Garcia is enjoying life and enjoying golf, the two not always dependent on one another, but they certainly can’t hurt. And don’t think that idea hasn’t gotten his attention.
“You've got to try to enjoy those good times as much as possible and learn from the tough ones and hopefully make them as short as possible,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, that's all you can really do.”