PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — In a season notable for the rise of the 20-somethings, Sergio Garcia appeared too old for that demographic. For one thing, it feels like he's been around for decades. For another, his struggles with the flat stick are an old, old story. Coming into this week he was tied for 158th place in putts per round. He'd tried carrying two putters. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since 2005.
It's easy to forget that Garcia is only 28 and still the best player under 30 from tee to green. More performances like his 6-under 66 in the opening round of the Players Championship on Thursday and he might shed that qualifier.
"I feel like I'm getting closer and closer," Garcia said. "At least now I have some rounds where I come out and say I actually shot what I should have shot and not come out and think, I should have been four or five shots better or three shots better or something like that."
On Thursday, at least, it seemed that Garcia was more than close and in full command of his game.
• He hit his 3-wood almost as far as playing partners Justin Leonard and Steve Stricker hit their drivers, and found 10 of 14 fairways.
• Garcia hit 16 greens in regulation and made just one three-putt, when he got on the wrong side of a huge ridge on the green at the par-3 eighth hole, his 17th of the day.
• He took 29 putts, which is less than a full stroke better than his season average but plenty good considering his greens-in-regulation figure. He made long ones that died in the hole, like the 48-foot, 5-inch bomb that found the cup for birdie on 14, and short ones that went in with pace, like the 7-footer he made for birdie on the fifth hole.
Garcia is not only rolling the ball better under the tutelage of renowned putting coach Stan Utley, but he also feels at home at TPC Sawgrass. The course reminds him of Valderrama, the 1974 Robert Trent Jones Sr. course in the south of Garcia's native Spain that hosts the European Tour's Volvo Masters.
"I guess it just fits my eye," Garcia said. "It has got some similar looks to [Valderrama] with the tree line and some of the greens, the undulations on them and the small greens."
Paul Goydos matched Garcia's seven birdies but threw in three bogeys for a 68, which tied with Kenny Perry for the second best round of the day, two back. Steve Elkington, Niclas Fasth, Todd Hamilton, Ian Poulter and Heath Slocum each shot 3-under 69. All but Hamilton played in the morning, when the course was softer and the wind was down.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson headlined the group of 14 players who shot 2-under 70, four off the lead, but had mixed feelings about his start after loose bogeys midway through his round, on the 18th (his ninth of the day) and first holes.
"Well, I'm pleased to have shot under par and pleased to get off to a good, solid start," Mickelson said. But Lefty added, "I feel as though I'm turning 66s into 70s, and I'm going to have to fix that this weekend."
Reigning U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera also shot 70, as did last week's Wachovia winner Anthony Kim, and Fred Couples, 48, twice a champion at TPC Sawgrass.
Conditions were relatively benign with the temperature reaching nearly 90 degrees, with the breezes increasing slightly in the afternoon. The infamous 17th hole, with its island green, saw only 19 water balls, but one of them belonged to world No. 4 Ernie Els, who made a triple-bogey 6 there after coming up way short off the tee.
"It was dead downwind," said Els, who birdied 18 for an even-par 72. "If I caught a [pitching] wedge a little too good, it would have been right through the green. I probably should have just hit that sand iron as hard as I could. Probably would have felt better if I hit it in the water then."
Garcia made par on the hole and had a clean scorecard until his bogey at the eighth hole. His most satisfying birdie of the day, he said, came minutes later at the par-5 ninth, when he got up and down from a greenside pot bunker to end his round on a high note.
Last year at Sawgrass Garcia gave winner Mickelson something to think about. Playing well ahead of the leader, he shot 67-66 on the weekend to eventually finish second. With his fast start on Thursday, "El Nino" is 17-under for his last three rounds at a course that is hardly a pushover. Asked which of his last three rounds was best, he pointed out that he made double-bogey on 18 to shoot last year's 67.
Before the arrival of Tiger Woods, absent this week as he recovers from surgery on his left knee, it was a given that golfers don't mature until their 30s. But the world No. 1 changed that with 46 Tour victories, including 10 majors before he turned 30. He redefined what's possible for a young player. However, he is also, suddenly, not in the picture, and likely won't return until next month's U.S. Open.
All of which may be giving comfort to young players like Garcia who have been compared to Woods only to be throttled by him in competition. It's starting to look like more than a coincidence that each of the big newsmakers on Tour during the last three weeks — Adam Scott, 27, at the EDS Byron Nelson, 22-year-old Kim and Garcia — have been tabbed the heir apparent to Tiger. When the cat's away, the mice will play.
"I think you need to put it in perspective that Tiger's somewhat unique," said Tom Lehman, who has known Garcia since he was 16 and calls him a friend. When told that Garcia was 6 under par, Lehman's first question was, "What's he using, the short putter? The belly putter?" The answer: a short putter he used in 2000, with a conventional grip.
"I have always hoped for the best for him," Lehman continued. "My [hope] would be that he finds something that he believes in and then works at it and perfects it and gets that confidence in it like his confidence tee-to-green. If he can just relay that confidence to the green, then he's going to be a serious force."
After the first round of the 2008 Players, Garcia is indeed closer and closer to being one.