European Tour Member Sergio Garcia found the perfect way to celebrate winning The Royal Bank Shot of the Month for July, by producing several more wonderful strokes on his way to a share of the lead with Open Golf Champion Ben Curtis after the first round of the World Golf Championships – NEC Invitational.
The Spaniard produced a performance as hot as the searing temperatures around the Firestone Country Club in Akron, seven birdies in total helping him to a six under par 64 to pull level with the local Ohio resident Curtis, the pair one stroke clear of the formidable pairing of Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods.
For Garcia, it represented the ideal tonic after missing the cut by the narrowest of margins in last week’s US PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club and gave himself the ideal platform to mount a serious challenge for his first WGC title over the remaining three rounds.
“Last week I played pretty solidly in the first round but I don’t know what happened in the second round (where he shot 77),” he said. “I just struggled for about seven or eight holes and that’s what kept me from the weekend.
“But I felt that my swing has been coming around nicely and now I really feel, standing over the ball, that I can hit the shot I want to. That is always important and when you add in the fact that I’ve been working pretty hard on my putting too, it is all starting to come together.”
Garcia made his intentions plain early in his round, chipping in at the second hole for an eagle three. It was not quite the 67 yard shot at Royal St George’s 17th hole which won him The Royal Bank of Scotland Award, but the 15 foot effort was spectacular nonetheless.
The Ryder Cup player’s challenge truly ignited around the turn however, notching four birdies in a row from the seventh hole with putts ranging in length from two feet to 12. He dropped his only shot of the day at the short 12th where he missed the green to the right, but made amends with a fantastic finish, holing for birdie from 15 feet on the home green.
Joint leader Curtis produced a similar round, birdieing three holes out of four around the turn as well as the 18th, the only difference being that the 26 year old, cheered all the way by a posse of friends and family, did not drop a shot to par.
Having not envisaged playing in the event before his surprise victory at Royal St George’s, Curtis had booked his wedding for Saturday, and still plans to go ahead with the ceremony, despite the slight problem of not knowing exactly what time it will be.
Should he remain in the lead, Curtis’s tee-time on Saturday means he will not be away from the golf course until after 7.00pm, but he revealed that fiancée Candace remained right behind his decision.
“I saw her on the 18th hole and she was smiling and cheering away,” he said. “I think the rehearsal dinner tomorrow night might be pushed back a little bit (the players go out in score order for round two), but I think she’ll be happy no matter what.”
Another happy person after the first day’s play was Garcia’s European Ryder Cup team-mate Darren Clarke who produced a solid opening 65 and, like Curtis, did not surrender a shot to the golf course all day, birdieing the second, third, fifth, tenth and 12th.
Clarke, of course, knows what it takes to win a WGC event, having won the 2000 WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship and the man he beat in that year’s final at La Costa Resort & Spa, the World Number One Tiger Woods, will be his partner in round two.
“I’m very happy with what I’m working on and what I’m doing and hopefully the results will now start to come,” said the Ulsterman. “I came here on Saturday and worked hard on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I put a lot of hard work in on the range and it is now just a matter of waiting for it to come to fruition.”
If there is one man who knows exactly what it takes to win at Firestone it is Woods, the World Number One having claimed all three WGC – NEC Invitational events played at the course from 1999 to 2001, and he signalled his intention to make it four out of four with an opening 65 to match Clarke’s effort.
“Some days you go out and slap it around, hitting it all over the place, and you shoot 68 or 69 and other days you go out and stripe it yet you only shoot level par,” he said.
“This year, overall, I’ve been pretty consistent and that’s what you have to try and do, try to keep yourself out of trouble as much as possible and take advantage of the opportunities when they come. Today was a perfect example of that. I stayed out of trouble and when I did put the ball in tight for birdie, I made them.”
Further down the leaderboard, other European Tour Members to figure prominently were current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit Ernie Els, Sweden’s Niclas Fasth and Els’s compatriot Retief Goosen, who all carded three under par 67s, while one shot behind after respective opening 68s were Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie and Phillip Price of Wales.