ARDMORE, Pa. – Sergio Garcia made the smartest play of the day in the first round of the U.S. Open.
In the wake of his 3-over-par 73, he downplayed a steady volley of afternoon taunts from galleries at Merion.
To be sure, the City of Brotherly Love did heap affection on the Spaniard with Philadelphia area fans encouraging him, but there was venom along with it.
Throughout his back nine, Garcia was told to keep his chin up, to keep battling, to know folks there were rooting for him, but there was some heckling working against all that. There was a volley of wisecracks from folks apparently eager to punish him for his “fried chicken” crack about Tiger Woods three weeks ago.
The taunts did not come in a torrent, they were scattered, but they built as the day grew longer, as beer sales grew in the emerging sun. They grew intrusive enough between shots that USGA rules official Donnie Bowers walked into the eighth fairway and asked Garcia if he wanted the two police escorts there to begin removing hecklers.
“No,” Garcia told him. “It would only make it worse, but I thank you.”
Garcia had three holes to play then, and he made the most of them, making birdies at two of them to shoot a respectable score after a nightmarish start.
This was an important day for Garcia, his first in front of American crowds since the tumult created by his racially insensitive crack about Woods. It was the kind of day Garcia knows must be endured to get himself past it all.
In the U.S. Open, a major championship test that tries a man’s patience more than any other, Garcia was almost saintly in his patience, given the added mental and emotional challenges hurled at him.
How did the heckling affect him?
“I think there were a couple here and there, but I felt the people were very nice for the whole day,” Garcia said. “I think that almost all of them were behind me, and that was nice to see.”
Diplomats don’t deflect any better.
Garcia is trying to win his first major, and the odds are stacked like a mountain against him here. He’s 0-for-58 in majors, but this toughness he showed Thursday should give his fans hope he will one day break through.
Garcia received polite applause when he was introduced at day’s start at the 11th tee, and a single, lone boo from the packed grandstands there.
While the morning galleries were well-behaved, Garcia still looked uncomfortable at the start in his return to American soil. He looked like he was unraveling with a double bogey at the 14th and a quadruple bogey at the 15th, the fourth and fifth holes of his round.
He hooked his tee shot left at the 14th and out of bounds. That’s when the weather horn blew suspending play for more than three hours. The break didn’t help Garcia. Upon returning, he hit a worse hook at the 15th, an errant missile that soared over a road and on to a hospitality tent 30 yards left of OB. After re-teeing and then hitting his approach into a greenside bunker, he skulled his bunker shot, screaming it over the green. He was 7-over par when he reached the first tee to play the front side.
Garcia, who has melted down more than once with frustration in his past, admirably steadied himself and fought back even as the galleries grew bolder in their heckling. Garcia made three birdies, an eagle and bogey over his final 10 holes to get himself back in the tournament.
Walking to the first green, where an 8-foot birdie putt awaited him, Garcia heard his first nasty taunt.
“Hey, head case,” a fellow with a beer bellowed. “Let’s see you blow it 10 feet past.”
Garcia buried the birdie putt.
At the second hole, after Garcia belted a solid 3-wood going for the green in two, a fan yelled, “Sergio, can I get a bucket of chicken over here.” Garcia made eagle there.
As Garcia walked to the third green, a group of four or five men standing at the top row of the bleachers booed him. As he left the fifth green, a couple men began shouting the new Kentucky Fried Chicken mantra, 'I ate the bones, I ate the bones.' At the seventh green, with Garcia’s putt tracking to the hole, a fan shouted, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner.”
There were more taunts and scattered boos through all of this, but Garcia took every shot at him with stoic determination and let his clubs fire back. He had the best kind of answers over those difficult final 10 holes. He had an arsenal of shots showing the kind of mental toughness Garcia’s lacked in some other big moments. There was that promise with Garcia facing the stiffest challenges Merion offered.