AUGUSTA, Ga. – For Sergio Garcia, the Masters has been a love affair, with a merciless temptress showing early interest in the Spaniard. As the weekdays gave way to the weekend, that affection turned to indifference.
This year, Garcia’s fate could change.
For the second consecutive day, Augusta National gave the 93-player Masters field all that it could handle. Garcia was up to the task Friday, shooting a 3-under 69 to jump to the top of the leaderboard with first-round leader Charley Hoffman (75), Rickie Fowler (67) and Thomas Pieters (68) at 4-under 140.
In his first 18 Masters, Garcia was in the top 10 five times before the weekend, but only twice – in 2002 and ’13 – finished in the top 10, both times eighth. Now for the first time, Garcia holds a share of the lead at the halfway mark. It’s only the second time in 74 major championships that Garcia has led after 36 holes, the first coming in the 2007 British Open. That year at Carnoustie, Garcia led through three rounds before losing in a four-hole aggregate playoff to Padraig Harrington.
The loss proved to be a crushing blow for Garcia, who had been dubbed the next great player in golf after a showdown with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, when the 19-year-old Garcia lost by one stroke.
The setback marked the beginning of a long struggle for Garcia in the majors. After a second-round 68 in the 2012 Masters left him in third place entering the weekend, he introduced what would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I wish I could tell you I'm ready to win,” Garcia said, “but I really don't know. So, I'm just going to give it my best try, and you know, hopefully that will be good.”
It wasn’t, and he tied for 12th.
During the past five years, Garcia has struggled at times with his game. After finding his soulmate, Angela Akins, a former TV broadcaster and University of Texas golfer, Garcia has shown a spark on the course and a balance in his life that seemed to be missing.
“Being surrounded by great people that are not afraid of telling you what's wrong with something when you do something wrong, that's something that I feel like I've always been very blessed with,” said Garcia, who is No. 11 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I think that I'm trying to change a little bit on that aspect, on accepting things. Sometimes things are going to go great, and sometimes they are not going to go so great. So I still have to get so much better at it. But what that shows me is that I have a lot of room for improvement, so that is something very positive.
Garcia showed signs of that improvement Friday. After bogeys on the par-4 10th and par-5 13th, he birdied the par-5 15th and par-4 17th holes.
Garcia trails only Lee Westwood, who is making his 76th start in a major championship without a victory, among active players. Garcia, whose career includes nine victories on the PGA Tour and 12 in Europe, enters the weekend with perhaps his best chance yet of winning one of golf’s most prized titles.
“It's difficult to describe it until it happens,” Garcia said of winning on what would be late countryman Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday Sunday. “But at the same time, it's Friday afternoon. It's not Sunday. So hopefully, we'll be standing here and we'll be talking about that, that feeling again. That would be the best thing that could happen to me, and you know, I'm going to do my best to make sure that I'm here to tell you how it feels.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli