'El Nino' appears to be getting his second wind

Friday, April 08, 2011
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

Of all the international faces that surfaced atop the first round of the Masters Tournament, perhaps none was a more welcome sight than the man formerly known as "El Nino."

Sergio Garcia took the first step Thursday toward rekindling the spark he once had at Augusta National Golf Club, shooting his best opening round in eight years with a 3-under-par 69 despite a finishing bogey.

"It's never nice to bogey the last, but I think shooting under par on this course, any time you shoot under par, you can't be too unhappy about it," he said. "I think that it was pretty positive."

Any time the word "positive" comes out of Garcia's mouth these days, it's a good sign. Ranked No. 2 in the world just a month before the 2009 Masters, Garcia is working his way out of the deepest funk of his career. He took a sabbatical from the game late in 2010 to recharge his spirits, returning to the PGA Tour last month ranked 85th.

Thursday was one more encouraging step forward, but the 31-year-old Garcia cautioned everyone not to get too carried away.

"I'm not going to lie to you, my confidence is still not where it should be," he said. "Because if it was, some of those shots and some of those putts that I missed today, I definitely would have made them. But it's definitely better.

''This is a tough course to build up on confidence, unless you're playing really, really well. But if you're doing that, then your confidence is probably quite high.

"Like I said before, the important thing is that it feels like we are going on the right track. I feel good about the game. I feel good about the things I'm doing."

He certainly looked good Thursday, almost like his old self. Garcia got off to a quick start, racing to 3-under through five holes.

He missed a couple of par saves on six and 12 to fall back to 1-under, and it seemed like the demons that have defeated him at Augusta in recent years were creeping back.

"There's a couple of moments here and there where you might feel a little bit, and then a couple not great thoughts might come into your head, but I guess that's the way the game is," he said.

But Garcia ripped a big drive on 13, hit his 6-iron approach from 189 yards to 6 feet and made the putt for eagle. A hole later, he stuck his wedge to 6 inches to make up three strokes in two holes.

"To be able to hit a good drive like I did on 13 and eagle that hole was definitely important to get myself back into the right track," he said.

Garcia was on a one-way track from the moment the swashbuckling young Spaniard first broke onto the scene at the 1999 Masters. He looked like the perfect successor at Augusta to countrymen Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. Garcia even shared the Butler Cabin ceremony as low amateur that year with Olazabal.

It seemed only a matter of time before Garcia upgraded his amateur medal for a green jacket.

"When Olazabal won here, he won as low amateur also," said Garcia's father, Victor Garcia. "He just has to have the same happiness and momentum he had back then. It will come."

Garcia contended from wire to wire in 2002, finishing eighth after a disappointing 75 on Sunday. Two years later, he fired a Sunday-best 66 to vault into a tie for fourth.

Since that Sunday, however, Garcia had broken 70 only one time in 18 Masters rounds before Thursday's promising start. He and the quirkiness of Augusta had seemingly fallen out of favor with each other.

"It's the same as always -- if you're playing well, I think any course can suit you; if you're struggling a little, then not," he said. "And this course shows that even more."

What will it take to restore his confidence at the Masters?

"Just that, a good start," said his father. "It's as simple as that. The round was very good because he starts under par. He needs to start under par."

Emotions have weighed heavy on Garcia for more than a year. His heart was wounded in a breakup with girlfriend Morgan-leigh Norman (Greg's daughter). This week, he is wearing a black ribbon on his cap to honor his friend and former trainer, Enrique Beltran, who died last week from cancer.

"I wanted to pay tribute to him," he said. "It was very quick. They found out probably about three weeks ago. He had surgery, and within probably six or seven days, he was gone."

With all of that on his mind, Garcia could use an emotional lift. Was Thursday's 69 the boost he needed to not only inspire him at Augusta but to return him to prominence on the major stages he once so regularly prowled?

"It was nice, but I don't think this was a big boost," Garcia said. "It's been a working process. I think that we've done some good things the last month and a half or two and that's been helping me kind of get back into it. I think this was just a continuation of that."

There's a long way to go until Sunday and even longer to get back into the top 10 where he was for so long a fixture.

But this was a good and welcome start for the 2008 Players champion. The first step to playing good golf is feeling good about yourself.

"When you're feeling good, everything seems a little bit easier," he said. "I'm trying to get those feelings back, and it's just a matter of keep building and building."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.