<
>

Sky's the limit for a smiling Sergio

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Alert the authorities. Contact local law enforcement officials. Throw a security net around all area airports, train and bus stations.

Sergio Garcia is missing! He's gone. Vanished.

What happened to the guy who spent parts of last year's Players Championship accusing Tiger Woods of violating golf etiquette and calling him, "not the nicest guy on tour"?

What happened to the Sergio who was tied with Woods for that 2013 lead and then sent three golf balls deep-sea diving on the final two holes at TPC Sawgrass?

What happened to the sour Spaniard who referred to himself as a "victim" in the Woods dust-up and once said he was incapable of ever winning a major?

That guy wasn't here Thursday. Instead, we got somebody who shot a 5-under-par 67 and then broke the course record for post-round smiles and cracking wise. We got somebody who was contemplative, reflective and -- wait for it -- refreshingly mature.

"At the end of the day, like I said before, the most important thing is to learn from those moments and try to make them shorter as your career goes on," said Garcia -- or so he insisted.

Garcia isn't in first place after the opening round of the Players Championship, but he is in a happy place. Given the strange arc of his sometimes controversial and underachieving 15-year pro career -- so much expected, no majors delivered -- that is no small thing.

He sits 4 shots off Martin Kaymer's lead of golf's supposed fifth major. But the bigger story has more to do with Garcia's golf demons, and with his search for personal equilibrium. Find that inner peace and perhaps he finally finds a way to slip on a green jacket, or hoist a U.S. Open trophy in June, a Claret Jug in July or a Wanamaker Trophy in August.

Garcia was supposed to be the next big thing. That's what everyone said beginning in 1999, when he finished second to Woods in the PGA Championship. He was only 19 and his game held so much joy and promise.

And then as the years passed, as the chances grew so tantalizingly close (a T-4 at the 2004 Masters, a T-3 at the 2005 U.S. Open, a playoff loss at the 2007 Open Championship, a T-3 and T-2 respectively at the 2006 and 2008 PGA Championships), as the frustration grew, Garcia was replaced on the phenom food chain.

Now he is 34, just two years removed from telling the Spanish-speaking media at the Masters, "I'm not good enough ... I don't have the thing I need to have."

He was talking about winning a major. Any major.

And now?

"It was one of those moments where you kind of -- things going on in your head and it just explodes and you feel like you have to say it," Garcia said Thursday. "No, I think that when I'm on, I can definitely win anywhere. I think I've proven that."

Garcia is ranked ninth in the world, but has won just once on the PGA Tour since winning the Players in 2008. By his own count, he has had four "really good chances" to win his first major. Sometimes he has been beaten fair and square. Other times he has imploded.

If he looked relaxed and confident Thursday, it's because he was. Garcia started on the back nine, shot 32 and parred the par-3 island green 17th hole and the par-4 18th. During that disastrous round of the 2013 Players, he went 7-6 on those two holes.

"It did cross my mind, I'm not going to lie to you," said Garcia of the memories of last year's meltdown. "I was trying to be positive. It's a new year, let's improve on it."

He ended his day Thursday by parring the par-5 ninth hole, but not before almost hitting a mother and daughter with his second shot as they walked up a cart path bordering the hole. As the ball settled into the rough, a barefoot spectator almost stepped on the ball.

Never a dull moment with Sergio.

Afterward, he tossed a half-eaten bag of potato chips to his agent moments before doing a post-round interview. Then he tossed a bottle of water at him. More smiles.

Standing nearby was Garcia's girlfriend, Katharina Boehm, who played golf at the College of Charleston after coming to the States from Munich, Germany. Garcia and Boehm are the picture of a happy couple. They recently vacationed in Switzerland, where Garcia decompressed after a missed cut at the Masters. They went hiking. They played badminton. Post-Masters self-pity and moping wasn't allowed.

"I think he's happy overall," said fellow Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who is tied with Garcia after the first round. "I think he has a wonderful girlfriend and he loves what he does again because not long ago he was a bit grumpy on the course and he never seemed to enjoy what he was doing."

Fernandez-Castano and Garcia have known each since they were 10. It was Fernandez-Castano who spoke with his friend in Munich not long ago and told him, "Sergio, you do not have to do this if you don't enjoy it. You're a millionaire. You have a fantastic family. They're all healthy. They love you. [You] don't have to play golf if you don't have fun."

This version of Garcia seems to be having fun again. He has a win and three other top-10 finishes worldwide this year. As for this week, he doesn't have to worry about the defending champion Woods, who is recovering from back surgery.

Three majors remain in 2014. Fernandez-Castano predicted one of them could possibly belong to Garcia.

"I think deep inside he knows he can," said Fernandez-Castano. "I think he wants one and I think he will get it. I think he's too talented not to do it. I think one day all of a sudden he's going to find himself 6 shots clear with nine to go and that's going to be the one."

We've heard this before. Garcia has heard it before.

"You go through ups and downs in your life, in your career and I've had really, really good times, really, really happy times," said Garcia. "And then I've had times that were a little bit more down. It's just the way of life."

But maybe this truly is a new and improved Garcia. Maybe the pity party is done at last.