<
>

Garcia lighting up TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Sergio Garcia did more post-round interviews than he made birdies Saturday, which is saying something because he went into red numbers six times at TPC Sawgrass.

But it was a par putt that was the most important to him, a 6-footer that elicited more emotion than one might expect for a rather routine outcome.

"It was a big moment," Garcia said after a 3-under-par 69 left him just 3 strokes back of leaders Martin Kaymer and Jordan Spieth at The Players Championship. "I'm not going to say for tomorrow, but for tonight. I still would have been happy with 70, but to finish bogey-bogey hitting good shots -- dinner would have tasted quite horrible.

"So I guess that's probably one of the reasons why it was nice to make it. It's a tough putt, too, that one on 18."

Sure, dinner went down better, but being just 3 shots back heading into the final round of the Players tastes better, too.

And that's why Garcia was such a popular interview subject afterward.

Garcia has a legitimate shot at his second Players title on a golf course he has come to like and navigate about as well as anyone.

Yes, there was that 7-6 finish to last year's tournament, the two balls in the water at the 17th followed by another at the 18th. There was also the drama with Tiger Woods, with whom he played in the third round, resulting in a highly publicized spat concerning golf etiquette. And there was Garcia's chance to win, only to come undone on the last two holes when tied with Woods, falling back to a tie for eighth.

That was a bitter blow, but it seems like a long time ago now. As has been noted often this year, Garcia appears more at peace, more comfortable. He ended 2013 with a victory in Thailand, had an early victory in 2014 in Qatar and is ranked ninth in the world.

And at the PGA Tour's signature event, Garcia has shot rounds of 67, 71 and 69 to put himself in contention again, tied for third along with John Senden.

"At the beginning, I didn't see it right away, but I guess, after the second year or so, I started kind of realizing what I wanted to do on the course a little bit more often, kind of having a little more clearer thoughts how I wanted to attack it," Garcia said.

"I think because of that, since that year, I think it's been good. I've been in contention quite a lot of years, a lot of good finishes here, so I'm excited about that."

Garcia, 34, is playing The Players Championship for the 15th time and has a tournament-best streak of 11 consecutive cuts made. He has finished in the top 10 four times, including the 2008 playoff victory over Paul Goydos.

And that is rare for TPC Sawgrass. Few players over the years have been able to develop much consistency here, including two of the biggest names in the game. Before he won last year, Woods had finished in the top 10 just once dating to his 2001 victory in the Players. Since winning the 2007 tournament, Phil Mickelson has no top-10s, and this year he missed the cut for the second straight time.

"It's funny, it's the kind of course that it's a very thin line between doing well and maybe shooting a couple over or something like that and then being off the cut like Phil was," Garcia said. "But it's the kind of course that, if you're on, you do get a good amount of birdie chances. You've got to be patient and wait for those good moments.

"They say there are horses for courses. Unfortunately, Augusta is one that doesn't get into my eyes for some reason. I seem to struggle to feel comfortable there. I see too many shots at Augusta. Here I see less shots. I've been fortunate to play well here."

Garcia did make three bogeys, the worst of which came at the par-3 17th, where he hit his approach safely to 25 feet, then three-putted, missing a 3-footer for par. "It was just a bad putt," he said. "I just couldn't get comfortable with it. I got really, really tight, and I just pulled it."

No wonder he was so happy with that par putt a hole later.