AUGUSTA, Ga. — He looked, for all the world, disappointed, especially for someone who had just executed what he would call “hands down, the best bunker shot of my life.” But standing in the sand below the pin at Augusta National’s 12th hole, Sergio Garcia bent at the knees, then kicked at the ground. His ball had trickled toward the hole but lipped out. And so we appeared to get what we have expected for the better part of two decades from the Spaniard: petulance. Why me? Why is it always me?
As Garcia emerged from the bunker and tapped in for his par, all manner of events that might have fazed the younger version of him started to transpire. A scoring error made it seem, to fans scattered across the course, that he had made a triple bogey at the 10th, when he knew he had made only bogey. A tree grabbed his tee shot at the 14th and knocked it down. A five-foot birdie putt at 18 slid just right of the hole instead of falling in the jaws.
Garcia’s reaction: “It was fine.”
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It is dangerous to stitch together an athletic performance — such as Garcia’s 69 on Friday in the second round of the Masters, which gives him a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman and Thomas Pieters at 4 under par headed to the weekend — with an overhauled attitude and attribute one to the other. But it’s also impossible to watch Garcia handle all that came with Friday — more wind, for one — and not notice a difference. He is 37 and starting to act like it.
“Things have definitely changed,” Garcia said. “I think that I’m a little bit calmer now. I think that I’m working on trying to accept things . . . which can happen here and can happen anywhere.
“It’s part of golf. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to say than to do it. But that’s the challenge we always have, making sure that you accept the bad moments or the bad breaks with the good ones and kind of move on.”
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Reminder: This is Sergio Garcia who, five years ago, vented his frustration after the third round right here by outlining his self-doubt. “If I felt like I could win,” he said then, “I would do it.”
We don’t yet know whether Garcia’s performance Friday — one that opened with three straight birdies — will lead to his first victory in this, his 74th major championship. We do know if he gets there, he will have defeated a leader board rife with the best names the 81st Masters has to offer.
Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, walked off the course before playing a shot in Thursday’s first round, the victim of a freak back injury. Tiger Woods, a four-time champion here, never intended to compete, his own chronic back issues posing questions about his future. But heading into the weekend, just about every other significant name in the field is poised to be a factor.
Jordan Spieth, who has never finished worse than tied for second in his three Masters, overcame his worst competitive round at Augusta with a birdie at 18 to cap a 69 on Friday that got him back to even par. Phil Mickelson, the three-time champion here, struggled coming in with bogeys at 14, 16 and 17 but still shot 73 to stay at even as well, four back.
Rory McIlroy, needing only the Masters for a career grand slam, is only five shots off the lead after a 73 that would have been better had he managed to make a three-foot par putt at 18. Fred Couples, reprising his annual role in giving hopes to borderline-geriatrics everywhere, hit his final approach to 18 inches at the last and finished off a 70 with a birdie, leaving him at 1 under.
And then, the leaders: Pieters, who starred at the Ryder Cup, played perhaps the steadiest golf through the bluster — a bogey at the difficult first to start, then four birdies and no more blemishes en route to his fine 68. The 25-year-old has never played the Masters before, but his game and demeanor seem well suited to what’s before him.
“It’s a bit bold to say that you want to come here and win and then you don’t do it, then you look like a fool,” Pieters said. “If I just get in contention here on Sunday afternoon, that’s all I want.”
Fowler, 28, has contended here on a Sunday before, finishing tied for fifth in 2014 — his worst finish in a major that season. He hasn’t yet won one but appeared in fine form with his 67 on Friday, the day’s best round despite a ball in the water at the par-5 15th — a development to which he responded with a birdie at 16.
And Hoffman, the first-round leader who is far less familiar with such territory, held things together despite a stretch with five bogeys in six holes, finishing with a 75 that might have been much worse.
“I knew that you couldn’t win the golf tournament today,” said Hoffman, who had opened with a spectacular 65. “You could pretty much only lose it.”
That was once the way Garcia would have thought: How will I lose this? Ever since he announced himself to the sport with an ebullient performance opposing Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, the golf has never really been Garcia’s problem. Yes, he has wavered with the putter. But his talent, it always has been there.
“His game looks the same as it did when he was a 19-year-old,” said Englishman Lee Westwood, who played with Garcia the first two days. “He doesn’t run around and bounce quite as much. But that’s probably an age thing.”
Age alone, though, hasn’t solved all of Garcia’s problems. But it simply seems like, had situations like Friday’s arisen in the past, he might have folded. The oddest for spectators had to be at the 10th, where both he and Shane Lowry hit their tee shots into the trees to the left of the fairway.
Garcia, Lowry and Westwood all wore light pants with blue sweaters in Friday’s chill, and sorting them out from a distance was a challenge much of the day. But here, Garcia’s ball bounced out — a good break, even though he had to play 3-wood into the green. Lowry had to play a provisional. The scorekeepers, though, mixed them up — and therefore knocked Garcia back from 3 under to 1 under for the tournament, an erroneous development reported on the boards across the course.
“The most important thing,” Garcia said, “is I knew where I stood.”
That is Garcia at the moment: sure on his feet and in his game. More important: sure with his head, a two-decade development that’s still in process, the most interesting aspect of his weekend here.