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Unlike in '08, Garcia succeeding despite putter

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – After Sergio Garcia won The Players Championship in 2008, he lifted his putter, as if it were a scepter for everyone to see, and kissed the blade.

Given his tumultuous relationship with the unruly instrument, the image was jarring.

This gifted ball striker showed what magic is possible when he makes an ally on the greens.

Garcia is back in contention at The Players, but the bewildering angle this time is that he’s making his run with a putter that is practically a sworn enemy again. He’s knocking on the door of his ninth PGA Tour title in spite of his wicked, cursed - even broken - flat stick.

After posting a 5-under-par 67 Saturday, Garcia did everything but scratch his head when he looked up to see that he is just two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I am a little surprised I am where I am, the way I feel, because I feel like I’ve left a lot of shots out there,” Garcia said.

Garcia isn’t being overly dramatic. He didn’t snap his putter over his knee after Friday’s round and stuff it in a garbage can for effect. A look at the tournament stats will make his fellow players want to scratch their heads, too.

Garcia is in contention despite ranking dead last in the field in putting from inside 10 feet.

He has missed five putts of 4 feet or less.

He was so flummoxed on Friday that he began alternating between a conventional grip and claw grip over the final four holes.

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“I don’t know what to do,” he said after the round.

Garcia started this week with a conventional grip but was back to the claw throughout Saturday’s round.

The fact that Garcia is in contention is a testament to how stellar his ball striking remains. He hit every fairway but one Saturday. He’s first in the field this week in strokes gained-tee to green and tied for fourth in greens in regulation.

Yes, of course, Garcia is making putts. He holed a nice 12-footer to save par at the last hole on Saturday, but he was still kicking himself for missing so many good chances. He missed putts from 9 feet, 8 feet, 7 feet and 3 feet in Saturday’s round alone.

Garcia’s mood was inscrutable after. It was difficult to tell if he was excited about being in contention to win another Players Championship or disappointed that he wasn’t running away with the title.

“I am excited,” Garcia was asked. “It's always exciting to be up there, but at the same time, obviously, you look back at these first three days, and I feel like I easily left, on average, three shots out there every round. You cannot think what could have been. It is what it is. It's as simple as that. I’ve just got to deal with it and try to do the best with what I have and that's what I'm trying to do.”

Sometimes Garcia seems to sabotage himself. We’ve all heard him be afraid to trust prosperity, or doubt fortune is ready to favor him, or just beat himself up.

“Sergio is hard on himself,” Rory McIlroy said. “I think you guys have probably experienced that over the past 15 or 20 years covering him. There’s a reason he gets so down on himself. Because he is so talented, and he knows what he can achieve. He knows how  good he can be.

“We’re all like that at times. I get frustrated with myself, but I feel like I can just sort of let it go maybe a little easier. Maybe that Latin blood in there sort of gets him a little fired up.”

Garcia started the week with a TaylorMade prototype blade putter made specially for him. He abandoned it for the second round but went back to it Saturday after breaking the putter he brought off the bench, in addition to changing his grip.

“Even when it doesn't feel good, it still feels better than the other one, when it doesn't feel good,” Garcia said.

With the putting frustration so apparent, Garcia was asked how confident he is going into Sunday.

“I'm very confident with my game, with my long game,” he said. “Even my chipping has been quite good for most of the year. Unfortunately, my putting has just been up and down. Some great rounds, and then some rounds where, I don't know, I can't even see the hole.

“We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

We’ll see if Garcia kisses the blade of another putter in victory, or snaps yet another as he sends it on the way to another garbage can.