AUGUSTA, Ga. – Who is this guy?
He looks like Sergio Garcia, swings like him, but he doesn’t sound like the guy who once seemed more likely to be fitted with a strait jacket than a green jacket at the Masters.
He doesn’t act like the guy, either.
After an up-and-down back nine that would have tested the temperament of the Sergio of old, the new Sergio sounded as cool and calm as a Zen Master.
He played as if he were in a state of transcendental meditation.
“I just have to let things happen, good and bad,” Garcia said after getting himself in the early hunt with a 3-under-par 69. “If you manage to do that, and not take bad things too seriously, you have a better chance.”
Struggling with frustration and a slumping game, Garcia, 31, went into exile after missing the cut at PGA Championship late last summer. He took two months off for rest and revitalization. A seven-time PGA Tour winner, he’s seeking his first major championship triumph.
Robert Karlsson has noticed the difference in Garcia since his return to golf.
“I know him quite well,” said Karlsson, who played alongside Garcia Thursday. “I played with him the first time in 1995. He looked like he was 12 years old.
Garcia? Harmonious? At Augusta National?
We’ve seen him play with fiery determination on torrid runs here. We’ve seen him exasperated and at wit’s ends on lousy runs here. We’ve heard him lash out at the course. We’ve seen a gamut of emotions from Garcia, but we’ve never heard him depicted as being in harmony with the place.
“At the first hole, Sergio’s tee shot went right and rolled up against a tree,” Karlsson said. “If that would have happened in the past, you could see him being pissed off right at the first hole. Today, he ended up making a nice 4.
“He’s chatting away more, smiling more, not getting too caught up with things.”
Garcia’s had a tumultuous relationship with Augusta National’s 18 holes. He shot 66 in the final round in 2004 and tied for fourth. He finished eighth in 2002. He’s also missed the cut four times.
Back in 2009, Garcia’s frustrations with the setup came boiling out. Sixth after two rounds, he shot 75 and 74 on the weekend to tie for 38th.
“I don’t like it, to tell you the truth,” Garcia told reporters as he left the course in ’09. “I don't think it is fair. Even when it's dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It's too much of a guessing game.”
Garcia apologized two days later, but the course wasn’t very forgiving when he returned last year. He shot 76 and 78 on the weekend.
Garcia’s 69 Thursday was his best start in the Masters since 2003. He’s getting comfortable with that right-hand claw grip in his putting stroke. He made five birdies and two bogeys with it.
Though Garcia got off to a fast start at 3 under through five holes, he dropped back to 1 under after ripping an 8-iron over the 12th green and making bogey. He answered right back at the 13th with an eagle. After carving a giant draw around the corner of the dogleg, he hit a 6-iron form 189 yards to 15 feet.
Karlsson said Garcia’s big draw at the 13th was another sign that the best of Garcia’s ball striking is back.
“Those are the kind of shots you see him take on when he is playing well and feeling good,” Karlsson said. “It was a great drive.”
Garcia followed his eagle with another big drive at the 14th, where he nearly holed his wedge shot. He left himself a 6-inch birdie.
Garcia was tested in the end. After missing the green left, he chipped to 8 feet and missed the putt.
“I hit a lot of good quality shots,” Garcia said.
Karlsson would tell you he hit a lot of harmonious shots.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell