So Garcia’s position after the best of his 49 career rounds in this event — he had previously broken 70 just six times — is tenuous, because he has only truly contended here once, back in 2002, back when he was still “El Nino.” Now, he is 33, and his pursuit of a major title that once seemed inevitable continues. Augusta seems an odd place to have it finally end.
“Obviously, it’s not my favorite, my most favorite place,” Garcia said Thursday.
He just happens to sit in the favored position, atop an eclectic and all-over-the-globe leader board. Leishman, an Australian who has played all of two competitive rounds here, joined him after he made seven birdies and just one bogey. “To be here is awesome,” he said, embracing the stage. A stroke back, at 67, sat Dustin Johnson, the absurdly talented South Carolinian who has contended at the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship — but never here.
Lump them in with other intriguing characters down the board — Americans Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar, 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman of South Africa and 53-year-old Fred Couples are among those at 68 — and the tournament is already compelling.
Which is to say: Please tune in Friday, because many of the lead characters have not yet asserted themselves, and Thursday was spent largely handing out bit parts to players both established and not. On a muggy, gray day, 22 players shot 70 or better, and precious few shot their way out of the event.
“I’m right there,” said Tiger Woods, the world’s No. 1 player, and he could have spoken for any of the 33 players who broke par. He has been in this position before and excelled. Three of his four Masters victories opened with 70, exactly the score he shot Thursday. (The most recent, in 2005, opened with 74.) In those victories, he stood fifth, 15th, seventh and 33rd, respectively, after the first day. He’ll begin play Friday tied for 13th.
“It was a good, solid day,” Woods said. So many others could say the same thing. Three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson played a Mickelson-like round — five birdies, four bogeys — yet hung in there for 71. Rory McIlroy, winner of the most recent major, made five birdies and five bogeys in an uneven 72, yet remains alive.
A contributing factor: greens that, for Augusta National, appeared inexplicably slow.
“I don’t get it,” Mickelson said. “They’re soft, and they are slow. And consequently we have 45 people at par or better.
“But that means that I’ve got to change my whole mind-set and just get after these pins. . . . I’m giving this course way too much respect, because of my past knowledge, than the way I should be playing it today.”
Mickelson could have turned to, of all people, Garcia to provide the correct approach. His meltdown here came in 2009, after he managed a final-round 74 to tie for 38th — an afterthought whose career had stalled. “I don’t think it’s fair,” he told the Golf Channel that day. “It’s too tricky.”
Such criticism of a place that is revered by so many was striking, yet it fit both Garcia’s reputation — “He might have had a little bit of a temper,” Johnson said — and his mind-set here. Since he tied for fourth in 2004 — a position he attained with a no-pressure 66 on the final day – his Masters record reads thusly: cut, 46th, cut, cut, tied for 38th, tied for 45th, tied for 35th and tied for 12th. No wonder he doesn’t pen odes to the place.
“We go through moments, tough moments, and frustrated moments or frustrating moments, and I know it was one of them” Garcia said. “Obviously, maybe I didn’t say it the right way.”
He did so much right on Friday. His birdie at the first began a stretch of 10 holes that were, by his estimation, “the best 10 holes I’ve played at the Masters.” After his birdie at the 10th, he was 5 under.
“What I’m going to try to take to my pillow tonight,” Garcia said, “is the first 10 holes.”
But what happened next might have been more important — and, should he excel this weekend, more indicative of why. After a wayward drive at 11, he made a grinding par save. “I kept my composure,” he said, and instead of sliding back as he stopped hitting it as well, he remained steady.
By the end of the round, he had not a single bogey. “A nice day,” he said. It may not have clarified how this tournament will play out, with so many people providing so many possibilities. But for Garcia, at Augusta, such a simple pleasure — a nice day — is a rarity that must be treasured.