AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sergio Garcia is still chasing that first major title.
It never figured to come at Augusta National.
But there he was Thursday, after a bogey-free opening round, sharing the top spot on the leaderboard at the Masters.
“Obviously, this is not my most favorite place,” Garcia said, trying to be diplomatic. “But we try to enjoy it as much as we can every time we come here. Sometimes it comes out better than others. Today was one of those good days. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
Garcia’s 6-under 66 tied him with Aussie Marc Leishman, on a cloudy day that was made for going low. There wasn’t much wind until late in the afternoon, when a storm front approached Augusta. There wasn’t a blistering sun to bake out the greens, which were receptive to accurate shots.
The Spaniard took advantage, rekindling memories of the teen phenom known as “El Nino,” who seemed certain to win numerous major titles after he battled with Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, losing by a single stroke.
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Garcia has challenged in other majors, but rarely at the Masters — a course that doesn’t seem to fit his style or shaky putter. In 14 previous appearances at Augusta National, he has finished in the top 10 only twice.
Last year, after a dismal third round took him out of contention, he bluntly conceded that he didn’t think he was capable of winning a major.
Obviously, he feels different now — though there’s still some trepidation in his voice about what’s still to come.
“Every time I tee off in a tournament, the goal is to play the best I can and have a chance at winning. That doesn’t change this week,” Garcia said. “Today was a nice day, one of those days you really enjoy. Hopefully I’ll have three more of those and we’ll see what happens on Sunday night.”
With all eyes on Tiger Woods, the overwhelming favorite, plenty of others stood out amid the azaleas and towering Georgia pines.
There was Leishman, who had played two whole rounds at Augusta National.
There was David Lynn, a Masters rookie who was just two strokes back.
Lynn was the early clubhouse leader, then Leishman surged to the front with four straight birdies on the back side starting at No. 13. The Australian sure didn’t play like someone who had missed the cut in his only other Masters appearance, in 2010.
“The first time I was here,” Leishman recalled, “I was like a bit of a deer in headlights, I guess. I found myself looking around a little bit too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole.”
He was hardly on a roll coming into Augusta, having missed the cut in his two previous PGA Tour events. But it all came together, for one day at least.
“To be sitting here is pretty cool,” Leishman said. “But it’s only Thursday afternoon, so a lot of golf to play.”
No Australian has ever won the Masters.
Lynn, a runner-up to Rory McIlroy in last year’s PGA Championship, birdied four of five holes around the turn and rolled in a testy 15-foot putt at the final hole to save par.
“It’s about playing the percentages,” the Englishman said. “When I was on the ninth, I turned to my caddie and said, ‘We’re leading the Masters.’ He just looked at me and smiled. I told him, ‘I’d rather be leading it Sunday afternoon.’ But it’s not a bad thing to see your name up there leading the Masters. That’s always something I can look back on.”
Lynn moved from the European to the American tour this year, a change that seems to have rejuvenated his passion for the game.
“It’s given me a second wind,” Lynn said. “Everything is new. I’m going to different places every week, different courses. It’s like I’ve started my career again almost.”
Dustin Johnson was one shot off the lead after a 67. Lynn was joined at 68 by a group that included Rickie Fowler, who went on the wildest ride of the day — a 4-under score despite two double-bogeys.
Jamie Donaldson turned in the shot of the day, acing the 180-yard sixth for the 24th hole-in-one in Masters history. He is only the fifth player to make a 1 at the hole known as Juniper, with its towering tee box and a green at the bottom of the hill. Donaldson was the first to do it since Chris DiMarco in 2004.
Woods was still the favorite after opening with a 70.
But it appears he’ll have a lot of competition.
“I felt like I putted well today,” said Woods, whose only lower opening-round score at Augusta was a 68 in 2010. “We’ve got a long way to go. I’ve just got to out there and play shot for shot. The golf course is going to change dramatically. You’ve just got to make adjustments.”
Woods has already won three times this year and reclaimed his No. 1 spot in the world rankings. But he hasn’t captured a major since 2008, and it’s been eight long years since he claimed his fourth green jacket at Augusta. He is still four majors shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 championships — a mark that becomes a little more daunting each time the 37-year-old Woods fails to win one of golf’s biggest events.
Guan Tianlang of China is just getting started. At age 14, he was the youngest player to ever qualify for the Masters, but showed he belonged with a solid 73 that included a 15-foot birdie from the fringe at the final hole.
His playing partner, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, led the cheers.
“I felt a little bit nervous on the first tee,” Guan said. “But I hit a great tee shot and, after that, everything feels comfortable.”
Shortly after dawn, the tournament began with ceremonial shots from three of golf’s greatest players — 83-year-old Arnold Palmer, 77-year-old Gary Player and the 73-year-old Nicklaus.
Palmer was clearly pleased with his effort, which settled right in the middle of the fairway. He pumped his right fist as the crowd roared.
“The only nerves are to make sure you make contact,” Nicklaus quipped. “It doesn’t make a diddly-darn where it goes.”
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