AUGUSTA, Ga. — Just one year ago, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, sullen after falling out of contention with a third-round 75 at the Masters, told the European press that he wasn’t good enough to win a major championship.
“I don’t have the capacity to win a major,” Garcia said, an astounding statement considering it came from a world-class player. “It’s the reality. I’m not good enough and now I know it.
“After 13 years I have run out of options. I’m not good enough for the majors. I will try to be second or third.”
Garcia backed off those comments Thursday and for good reason. He opened the 77th Masters with a 6-under-par 66 and was tied for the lead with Marc Leishman of Australia.
“I mean, those were my words,” said the 33-year-old Garcia, who has never won a major in 57 previous attempts. “I think at the end of the day, we go through tough moments and frustrating moments, and I know that was one of them.
“Obviously, maybe I didn’t say it the right way.”
Garcia, who wowed the golf world as a 19-year-old by pushing Tiger Woods to the brink at the 1999 PGA Championship, was in a much better frame of mind after making six birdies in a bogey-free round. He was 5-under par after 10 holes and called it “without a doubt, the best 10 holes I’ve ever played in the Masters.”
He’ll need to keep playing well if he is to break his major drought because the leader board is jam-packed with big-name players.
Dustin Johnson shot a 67 and was just one stroke behind Garcia and Leishman.
The group of six at 68 included former Masters champions Trevor Immelman (2008) and ageless Freddie Couples (1992), Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler (despite a pair of double-bogeys).
It was only two more strokes back to Tiger Woods, who opened with a 70 for the fifth time at Augusta National. Good omen? Well, the world’s top-ranked player has won three times from that opening score.
“It’s a good start,” Woods said. “Right now I’m only four back and I’m right there.”
Phil Mickelson, who won Masters titles in 2004, ‘06 and ‘10, also was lurking at 71 after a slow start that put him 2-over through 11 holes.
“It was a round where it didn’t help me much,” Mickelson said, “but it certainly didn’t hurt me.”
Rory McIlroy shot a 72, Steve Stricker of Madison had a 73 and defending champion Bubba Watson struggled on the greens for a 75.
Of the players at or near the top of the leader board, the 29-year-old Leishman is the most anonymous. He has one PGA Tour victory on his résumé, the 2012 Travelers Championship, but also has won in Korea and Australia and on the Web.com Tour.
In his only previous Masters appearance, he shot 72-79 and missed the cut in 2010.
“The first time I was here I was a bit like a deer in headlights, I guess,” Leishman said. “I found myself looking around a bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole.”
On Thursday, he bogeyed No. 1 but then got the ball in the hole just fine, making birdies on Nos. 3, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15 and 16.
“I haven’t been on a run like that ever around this golf course,” Leishman said. “It was good to know that it’s possible, because it felt impossible the last time I was here.”
Johnson, who missed the 2012 Masters with a back injury, led the field in driving distance (317.5 yards) and played a bogey-free round, picking up birdies on Nos. 1, 2, 9, 13 and 15.
“This is my favorite event to play,” he said. “I grew up one hour from here (in Columbia, S.C.), so it’s always one I look forward to playing and enjoy coming here. My friends and family get to come down and watch. It’s a lot of fun.”
Johnson has come close to winning a couple of majors, including the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he infamously incurred a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker.
But in three previous Masters, his best finish was a tie for 30th in 2009.
“This is one of those courses, the more you play it, the more you get to know it,” he said.
Or, in Garcia’s case, the more you dislike it. The opinionated Spaniard doesn’t exactly wax poetic about Augusta National, where his best finish is a tie for fourth in 2004.
“Well, obviously, it’s not my most favorite place,” he reiterated Thursday. “But we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here. Sometimes it comes out better than others and today was one of the good days.
“Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
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