Augusta, Ga. – It was hard to pick the more compelling story during the first round of the Masters — the brilliant play of the immature golfer, or that of the 14-year-old.
A year after saying he would never be able to win a major, Sergio Garcia for the first time in 49 tries at the Masters finished a round in the lead. He shot a 66, tying him for first with Australian Marc Leishman, on a day when 14-year-old Guan Tianlang shot a 73 and impressed Ben Crenshaw with his gamesmanship and touch.
Guan, the youngest player in Masters history by more than two years, said he’d like to win all four majors in one year. The 33-year-old Garcia last year said he’d never win one: “I have run out of options; I’m not good enough for the majors. I will try to be second or third.”
Garcia once was known as the best golfer to never win a major. Thursday, he became the best golfer to claim he never said he could never win a major.
“Well, I mean, those were my words,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day we go through moments, tough moments, and frustrating moments, and I know that was one of them. Obviously maybe I didn’t say it the right way, because it was one of those frustrating moments.”
He’s had a few. Garcia finished second to Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship, presenting himself as a potential rival to Woods for decades to come. While Woods surged to 14 career majors, Garcia became known for spitting in the cup after missing a putt in 2007, blowing a four-shot lead at the 2007 British Open and losing in a playoff to Padraig Harrington, then blaming golf gods for his failures.
“I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field,” he said then.
He signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified during the 2007 PGA Championship, and blew another lead to Harrington at the 2008 PGA. He has taken breaks from the game, most notably when he skipped the 2010 Ryder Cup.
Thursday, he displayed his new putting grip, the “paintbrush,” in which he propels the club with the inside of his right index finger and thumb. He made four birdies on the front nine and finished the round without a bogey, an incongruous performance for a player plagued by crucial mistakes who has admitted his loathing for Augusta National.
“Obviously it’s not my favorite place,” he said.
Guan might consider that sacrilege. The eighth-grader from China played a practice round with Woods, then looked comfortable playing alongside Crenshaw on Thursday. He birdied from just off the 18th green to turn in a better score than Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Nick Watney and Crenshaw, as his mother followed him with snacks.
After speaking in the interview room, Guan left with Masters officials, chewing on a free ham sandwich, as his parents promised he wouldn’t have to do homework because of his early tee time on Friday.
“He played about four of the most beautiful, delicate chips you’ve ever seen,” Crenshaw said. “It must help to have 14-year-old nerves. I’m telling you, he played like a veteran today.”
Garcia’s history suggests he will fold this weekend, but this tournament has proved unpredictable the last seven years. Garcia is more than talented enough to win. But does he know that?
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I still welcome it, there’s no doubt. It’s very difficult to play the Masters, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it for some years now.”
Garcia was supposed to become a latter-day Seve Ballesteros, a Spaniard with magic in his hands. Ballesteros won the Masters twice. Garcia hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Augusta since 2004. In his previous eight rounds in majors, he was 21 over par.
The last player to shoot a 66 in the first round and win the Masters was Ballesteros, in 1980.
Ballesteros, though, was unencumbered by doubt, while Garcia seems to keep his worries in his golf bag, right next to his disloyal putter.
Jim Souhan can been heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10-noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org