Garcia, McIlroy eye first WGC win
AKRON, Ohio -- For all of his success in golf dating to a teenage run at a major championship, Sergio Garcia's record at Firestone Country Club is amazingly poor.
The Spaniard has a single top 10, and that occurred in 1999 -- when the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was known as the NEC Invitational, it followed the PGA Championship, and the concept of the World Golf Championship events was brand-new.
Garcia was 19, just two weeks removed from giving Tiger Woods a scare at the PGA Championship. He finished 8 strokes behind Woods, who edged Phil Mickelson by a stroke. Ernie Els finished fifth, and Jim Furyk was a shot behind Garcia.
So much has changed, including the demeanor of Garcia and today's foil, who was 10 years old way back when Garcia first set foot on the Firestone layout.
Just like two weeks ago in England, Rory McIlroy, 25, is poised to win a big golf tournament, this time chasing rather than leading. At the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, he had a 6-shot advantage over Rickie Fowler and a 7-shot lead over Garcia heading into the final round.
Here, after a third-round 66, McIlroy is in position to win his first WGC event, but he will have to chase down Garcia, who is playing some excellent golf of late. He followed his Friday 61 with a 67 to complete 54 holes at 196, 14-under par.
"I'm excited about it," Garcia, 34, said. "Obviously, I know that if I keep doing what I've been doing throughout the whole year, if I play nicely, if I believe in myself and stay calm, I have a really good chance at lifting the trophy tomorrow. So that's the goal, and hopefully, I'll be able to achieve it."
Garcia wasn't able to finish off the rally against McIlroy at the Open, where he did pull within 2 strokes on the back nine to make things interesting. The Spaniard shot a final-round 67 while McIlroy did what he had to do to claim the Claret Jug and his third major championship.
And you get the sense that McIlroy is relishing this opportunity.
"It would be huge," McIlroy said after birdieing the final two holes to cut Garcia's lead that had been up to 6 strokes at one point during the third round. "It would be really good. It would be nice to go to Valhalla [next week's PGA Championship] looking for three in a row. It would be a pretty good three in a row to try and achieve.
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"I'm not getting ahead of myself here. Sergio is still 3 ahead of me going into tomorrow, and I'll need to play some really, really good golf to try and catch him because he is playing very well.
"But as I said at the start there, it's a great opportunity for me to try and win my first WGC, good opportunity to try and get back to that world No. 1 position and just to be in contention so soon after winning arguably the biggest tournament of my career. That's very satisfying to me knowing I'm not really dwelling on it. I just keep moving forward."
So does Garcia, who won earlier this year in Qatar and since then has six world-wide top-10 finishes and just three outside of the top 20. He has risen to No. 5 in the world and had one of the year's most impressive rounds Friday, when he shot a 61 that included 11 straight one-putts and seven consecutive birdies to end the round.
"It was impressive to watch," said Mickelson, who played with Garcia on Friday. "What was impressive was how well he putted, how well the ball was rolling off the face. He's really turned himself into a great putter after having a couple of years of struggling. He's now a really good putter."
Since his tie for seventh here in 1999, Garcia has been in the top 20 just twice and not since 2005, when he tied for 13th. He tied for 40th last year and had shot in the 60s just five times in his last 20 rounds at Bridgestone.
But he's got three straight in the 60s this time and was as perplexed as anyone as to his lack of success here.
"It's nice to have played well for the first three rounds," he said.
To hold off McIlroy, he'll likely have to do it again Sunday.