Garcia finally at peace with himself, Augusta?

By Ryan LavnerApril 7, 2017, 10:59 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Who IS this guy?

It can’t possibly be the same Sergio Garcia who once said that he doesn’t have what it takes to win a major.

Who once suggested that he was playing against more than the field.

Who once criticized Augusta National – a place where Sarazen and Nelson and Snead and Hogan and Nicklaus and Palmer and Woods all have won – as unfair and “too much of a guessing game.”

Yes, this sure looks like Sergio – the playful demeanor, the fist pumps and the heat-seeking missiles coming off his clubface – but it definitely doesn’t sound like him. Now one of golf’s most tortured characters is openly talking about accepting bad breaks. About trying to be more positive. Even about winning major titles.

“Things are happening at the moment,” he said.

Garcia has been coming to Augusta for 19 years now, but never has he played like this.

With wind gusts topping 30 mph, he went bogey-free over the first 21 holes to stay in touch with Charley Hoffman, who sprinted out to the lead with an opening 65. Garcia trailed by seven, but he ran off three birdies in a row to start his second round. By the 10th hole, he led outright.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Sergio round without some drama, and there was plenty of it Friday – a live-scoring error, a lipped-out bunker shot (his best ever!), a striped 3-iron over a creek to set up a two-putt birdie, and two stuffed short irons to close. At 4-under 140, he is tied for the halfway lead with Hoffman, Rickie Fowler and Thomas Pieters.

“He just played well,” Lee Westwood said. “Had his ball under control.”

Now, the pessimist would view Garcia’s rise to the top of the leaderboard as another chance for the Spaniard to get his heart broken Sunday – on what would have been Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday, no less.

In this Masters field, only Westwood (75) has more major starts without a victory than Garcia (73).

In the sport’s history, only Ed Dudley (24) has more major top-10s without a victory than Garcia (22).

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Simply put, a major title of any kind would be historically resilient. That it no longer consumes him is a clear sign of his growth.

“I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to be healthy, that I’ve been able to play so many majors in a row and giving myself a lot of chances to win them,” Garcia said. “That for me is already a win, and if we can put the cherry on top, that would be even better.”

A cherry on top? Who is this guy?

Now 37, Garcia is coming into his own, and at Augusta National, of all places. It was two years after his painful loss at the 2007 Open – when he lamented his ongoing war with the golf gods – that he first took out his frustrations on the home of the Masters. Reinforcing his petulant reputation, he whined: “I don’t think it’s fair. It’s too tricky.”

Three years later, with his major drought growing ever longer, Garcia waved the white flag at Augusta, confessing that he wasn’t good enough to win one of golf’s most important titles. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place,” he said then.

Reminded of those immature comments Friday, Garcia said: “It’s the kind of golf course you have to get to know a little bit. Make peace with it a little bit.”

Part of that process was accepting that good shots here aren’t always rewarded – that an approach can land next to the hole but drift 40 feet away. A younger Sergio would have railed against the course. Blamed someone else. Now, he tries to see the big picture, to absorb the bad breaks, to remind himself of the good memories and move on.

To grow up.

How did he arrive at this point? To hear Garcia, it was some occasional tough love from those closest to him, including his fiancée, Angela Akins. They are set to marry in July.

“I’m trying to change a little bit on that aspect, on accepting things,” he said. “I still have to get so much better at it. But what that shows me is that I have a lot of room for improvement, so that is something very positive.”

The physical aspects have never been a question with Garcia. He remains one of the game’s preeminent ball-strikers, even if his putting (currently ranked 193rd) occasionally abandons him.

“He’s always been a good player,” said Westwood, who has competed against Garcia for nearly two decades. “I haven’t seen him change much. His game looks the same as it did when he was a 19-year-old. Admittedly, he doesn’t run around and bounce up and down quite as much. Probably an age thing.”

But with age comes wisdom. And perspective. And balance.

And, perhaps most of all, the confidence to end all of that insecurity.

“I probably didn’t accept things as well as I should have,” he said. “But I’ve shown myself many times that I can contend and I can truly feel like I can win not only one, but more than one [major].”

Maybe he gets it done Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t.

For the first time, he sounds ready.

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials phoned Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial. 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.