HUMBLE, Texas – There is an opening, growing wider. Can Sergio Garcia see it?
His biggest liability is now a strength.
He’s happy off the golf course – with this mercurial star, that’s immeasurably important.
The Masters is wide open and without the player who has so dramatically stunted the 34-year-old’s career.
Face it: This is Garcia’s best chance to win a major championship.
Sure, he’s still mired in the kind of negative talk that gives sports psychologists the shakes, but he’s never been more equipped to end his 0-for-career mark in Grand Slam events.
This idea was reinforced Friday, when Garcia shot a bogey-free 65 at the Shell Houston Open. It matched the best round of the day, and it gave him a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar (67) heading into the weekend.
So far, Garcia has enjoyed the contender’s trinity: He missed only one fairway in the second round, he ranks third in proximity to the hole and he leads the field in strokes gained-putting.
That last part is most important, at least for Garcia. Through two rounds he has taken just 51 putts, missing only four of 36 attempts from inside 15 feet.
In the two years since switching to the claw grip, Garcia has moved from 144th to 26th to eighth in putting. So readjust your expectations – the ball-striking virtuoso also can roll it.
“He’s putting so well,” said Steve Stricker, the Tour’s resident putting expert, who was grouped with Garcia for two rounds here. “When he does that, he’s tough to beat.”
He’s even tougher to beat when he’s happy.
That may sound like an oversimplification, but consider that one of the best years of his career was 2008, when he was in a relationship with Greg Norman’s daughter. That year he won once on the PGA Tour, finished second in the PGA Championship and earned a career-best $4.8 million.
They broke up in early 2009, and for the next three years a devastated Garcia produced just seven top 10s – and no wins – in 48 PGA Tour starts.
Recently, though, he began dating Katharina Boehm, and Garcia was so smitten that he put his girlfriend on the bag late last year in Thailand. He won the event, punctuating the victory with a post-round smooch for the cameras.
“It’s never fun to go through those emotions,” he said Friday. “But you’ve got to learn from those downs and kind of enjoy the highs as much as you can. You know, don’t take them for granted.
“I’m definitely happier outside the golf course, which helps me to be happier inside the golf course. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to play well every time. But at least you feel like your frame of mind is a little bit in a better state.”
That good frame of mind has carried over this week in Houston, where the world No. 8 will be looking for his third title in his last seven worldwide starts.
Which brings us to next week’s major championship, and his bid to end what has been a long, largely frustrating journey.
The good news for Garcia is that never in his career has he entered a major with such a prolonged run of good form. Of the Masters contenders, the normally volatile Spaniard has actually been the most consistent, finishing inside the top 20 in every tournament he has entered since The Barclays in August.
Consider the usual suspects: Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Matt Kuchar each have kicked away tournaments in recent weeks; Henrik Stenson can’t yet rediscover his 2013 form; and Jason Day and Phil Mickelson are still battling injuries.
Sergio doesn’t have to worry about Tiger Woods, either.
This point cannot be understated. Surely it’s no coincidence that three of Garcia’s best major finishes have come when Woods sat out because of injury: T-2 the 2008 PGA, T-7 at the 2011 U.S. Open and T-9 at the 2011 Open Championship.
Does Garcia view this wide-open Masters as one of his best opportunities to win a Big One? Cue the pessimism.
“You can never tell,” he shrugged. “We’ve seen it over and over. We’ve seen how some weeks you can go from missing a cut comfortably to winning the next week, or going from winning to missing the cut or finishing 40th.
“Obviously, playing nicely helps, there’s no doubt about that. But every week is a different world.”
Garcia has sparred with the Golf Gods in the past, of course, and it’s worth noting the winners here have a not-so-good history the following week at Augusta: Of the Houston Open winners since 2007, only Anthony Kim (T-3) has gone on to finish in the top 10 at the Masters. Only four players in history have won in back-to-back weeks.
Sergio needn’t concern himself with such history, though. There is an opening, growing wider by the day. It’s just a matter of whether he can see it.