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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sergio Garcia, who was up a tree at the Bay Hill Invitational last month, has been up Rae’s Creek without a paddle whenever he comes to the Augusta National Golf Club.
Unlike most players who love the beauty and serenity of the Masters, Garcia has known nothing but angst and frustration whenever he gets among the Georgia pines.
But, something strange happened Thursday on the first day of the 77th Masters: Garcia, the Spanish bull, found himself at the top of a leaderboard, the first time that has happened to him at Augusta National.
OK, he is sharing the top spot with Marc Leishman of Australia, a one-time winner on the PGA Tour. But Garcia did it with a bogey-free 66 that tied his career low at the Masters.
“It’s not my most favorite place, but we tried to enjoy it as much as we can,” Garcia said. “Every time we come here, sometimes it comes up better than others. Today was one of those good days. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
Major titles were once predicted in great abundance for Garcia. But, at age 33, the Spaniard is 0 for 57 in major tournaments. His frustration is so great that after last year’s 12th-place finish at the Masters he told the Spanish media he didn’t think he could ever win a major.
He even said he had reached the point in his career where he needed to play for “second or third place” in golf’s four biggest tournaments.
“We go through tough moments and frustrating moments, and that was one of them,” said Garcia, who is appearing in his 55th consecutive major, the longest active streak in the world. “Maybe I didn’t say it the right way. What I felt was, I definitely kind of shot myself out of that tournament last year.
“Anytime I tee off in a tournament, my goal is to play the best I can and have a chance at winning. It doesn’t change this week. It was one of those days you really, really enjoy. Hopefully, I’ll have three more of those.”
Garcia and Leishman led a wave of 32 players who took advantage of the ideal scoring conditions at Augusta National with rounds below par — the most since a record 38 in the first round in 2009.
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Among those were Tiger Woods (70) and Phil Mickelson (71), who have combined for seven green jackets
Dustin Johnson, who eagled the par-5 13th, shot 67 and was alone in third, one shot off the lead.
“I can’t wait to get back on course [today] because I feel like I can light it up,” said Mickelson, who birdied four of the final seven holes during a back-nine 33. “My mindset has to change. I’m giving the course way too much respect. I have to get after these pins. I got to make birdies to catch these guys because it will be a birdie-fest.”
Among the six players at 68 is Fred Couples, 53, who has made it something of an annual habit of jumping on the leader board at Augusta National. The 1992 Masters champion was the 36-hole leader last year and the 18-hole leader in 2010, despite playing the past three years on the Champions Tour.
Couples, who has 11 top-10 finishes at the Masters, is the tournament’s all-time leader in scoring average (71.89). However, he has had a difficult time sustaining that type of play on the weekend. In his past 15 rounds on the weekend, Couples has bettered 70 just once.
“Honestly, it’s not surprising,” Couples said. “I’m going to come out [today] and do everything I can to keep this thing going because I know I can play this course. And if I hit it like that, I can play it every day.”
Leishman, 29, never looked back after a bogey at the first hole. He made seven birdies and 10 pars the rest of the way, jumping to the top of the leader board with a stretch of four consecutive birdies that began with a 6-footer at the par-5 13th and ended with a monster putt on the par-3 16th.
“I don’t know how far that was, but it was in a different ZIP code, I think,” said Leishman, whose only PGA Tour victory came last year in the Travelers Championship. “You know, that happens when you have a good day occasionally, and you’ve just got to make the most of it.”
For Woods, the world’s No. 1 player, it was the fifth time he has shot 70 in the opening round of the Masters. In two of those years (2001, 2002), he went on to win the green jacket.
Woods is tied with nine other players, a group that includes world No. 3 Justin Rose, No. 11 Lee Westwood, and Jason Day.
“It’s a good start,” Woods said. “Some years some guys shot 65 starting out here. But right now I’m only four back, and I’m right there.”
Then there was Rickie Fowler, making his third appearance at the Masters.
He started his round with a double-bogey at No. 1, started his back nine by taking an unplayable lie and making another double-bogey at No. 10, and shot 68 with the help of an eagle at the par-5 15th. Fowler is tied with five other players, including Couples, Matt Kuchar, and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain, who birdied all four par 5s.
“It was funny to see my name go up on the leaderboards, to see 2-1-0, to see all the numbers go back and forth,” Fowler said. “There were probably some people laughing at that.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.