Spain's Sergio Garcia fired a first-round 66 on Thursday to seize the lead in the prestigious Players Championship.
Garcia took advantage of ideal morning conditions at the Sawgrass TPC — a course he says reminds him of Valderrama in his homeland — notching seven birdies in his six-under effort.
That was good enough for a two-stroke advantage over Americans Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos in the US$9 million tournament.
“I played very smart, hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens, and I made some good putts,” said Garcia, who was runner-up to Phil Mickelson here last year. “I’ve been close two or three times, so I’m looking forward to giving myself plenty more chances.”
Putting woes have frustrated Garcia for the past few years, with his last victory having been in 2005.
However, he said he believes he is turning things around after starting to work with short game guru Stan Utley, a former touring pro.
“My main idea was to get back to the way I used to putt 10 or 12 years ago, when I was a good putter,” said Garcia, who was runner-up to Ireland’s Padraig Harrington at the British Open last year. “We try not to get too technical. I’m very excited about how my game is coming along.”
Americans Heath Slocum and Todd Hamilton, Aussie Steve Elkington, England’s Ian Poulter and Sweden’s Niclas Fasth were three shots off the pace on 69.
Slocum said the wind was a factor in his performance.
“Well, the wind is going to always make it a little tougher, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “A good shot could turn into a marginal shot. I think the wind is supposed to blow tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll have to deal with that. It’s just part of it. Again, you’re going to have to take your chances or take your opportunities when you get them and hopefully make a bunch of putts.”
Mickelson was four adrift after a 70 that included five birdies and three bogeys.
“Well, I’m pleased to have shot under par and pleased to get off to a good, solid start,” Mickelson said. “I feel as though I’m turning 66s into 70s and I’m going to have to fix that this weekend. I’m going to have to stop letting those shots slide in the middle of the round that are costing me in the end. But I would have taken anything under par starting the day.”
Mickelson came from behind in the final round last year to beat Garcia by two strokes.
Masters champion Trevor Immelman withdrew before the start of play after falling ill overnight.
The South African had already scheduled the next two weeks off to rest up after a busy post-Masters schedule.