Big finish sends Garcia to big lead at Players Championship


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Sergio Garcia has played TPC Sawgrass enough to know that trouble is lurking around every turn, and the opening round Thursday at The Players Championship provided another example. Just not for him.

A solid start turned into a brilliant one for Garcia, who finished birdie-birdie-eagle for a 7-under 65, staking the Spaniard to a three-shot lead among the early starters.

Garcia, who won the PGA Tour’s premier event in 2008, holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-4 seventh, hit a 3-iron to 15 feet on the par-3 eighth, and closed it out with a 5-wood to 18 feet for eagle on his final hole.

The 65 matched his best score on the Stadium Course.

Garcia was among only five players from the morning draw who broke 70 in what appeared to be ideal conditions, with only a mild breeze and a course in immaculate condition. The trouble came from pin positions that required more precision than usual, and the Sawgrass hazards that make this course as entertaining as any.

“For some reason, it just kind of fits my eye,” said Garcia, who has a pair of runner-up finishes to go with his victory. “I see what I want to do pretty much every hole and then it’s a matter of doing it.”

He did it better than anyone, adding another eagle earlier in his round with an approach to 10 feet on the par-3 17th.

Corey Conners, a contender last week at Bay Hill, and Matt Fitzpatrick each had a 68, while Bay Hill runner-up Lee Westwood and Tom Hoge were another shot behind.

Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth were among those playing in the afternoon.

Garcia didn’t have to look far to see what kind of damage Sawgrass can inflict. He played alongside Rory McIlroy, who began his round with a double bogey from the woods on No. 10 and finish a nine-hole score of 43 by hitting two tee shots into the water on the 18th for a quadruple-bogey 8. He finished with a three-putt bogey for a 79, his highest start of any tournament since a 79 at Royal Portrush in the 2019 British Open.

“The big number on 18 didn’t help and then doubling the first wasn’t helpful, either,” he said. “It’s hard to recover when you just haven’t played good. If you take that 18th hole out, it still wasn’t a very good day.”

Henrik Stenson hit into the water on consecutive holes for a double bogey and a triple bogey, and he put two more in the water — including on the island-green 17th — for an 85, his highest score ever on the PGA Tour.

Byeong Hun An did all his damage on one hole — four tee shots in the water on the 17th for an 11 — for an 83. Kevin Na hit three in the water on the 17th for a quintuple-bogey 8 and then withdrew with a bad back and an 81 on his card.

Rickie Fowler had three double bogeys in his round of 77, leaving him in danger of missing the cut and likely missing out on the Dell Match Play in two weeks.

Garcia’s lone bogey came after perhaps his best shot. From the pine straw next to a tree left of the first fairway, he hooded an iron that came out low and right to left with enough run that it settled 25 feet away. And then he three-putted.

The most remarkable round might have belonged to Hoge, who managed to get through 18 holes without a bogey.

“It was a good, solid day, kind of what you want here on the Stadium Course,” Hoge said. “I haven’t been hitting it that well coming in here, so I just tried to hit a lot of greens and stay out of trouble for the most part.”

Viktor Hovland had a double bogey on his second hole, the par-5 11th, and was mistake-free the rest of the way for a 70 to join a group that included former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and Nick Taylor.

Sebastian Munoz was at 4 under with one hole to play, that being the 18th, and a shot into the water led to a triple bogey for a 71. He tried to take out the positives of five birdies, and that’s what makes this tournament so tough to predict. There are plenty of birdies available. It doesn’t take much to erase all the good work.

“You do have a lot of wedges in your hand,” Munoz said. “Par 5s are reachable. So yeah, we do have a lot more chances than a usual course. But I mean, danger is around the corner on every hole.”

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