Garcia, Johnson in early Nelson hunt
Paired together, friends take different paths to join crowd 2 shots back of leader
IRVING, Texas -- Paired together in one of the HP Byron Nelson Championship's featured first-round groups, friends Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson took divergent paths to their position on the leaderboard, 2 shots back of leader Jeff Overton.
The two started in dramatically different ways.
Garcia, after his tee shot on his first hole, No. 10, missed the fairway, caught a good lie and took advantage.
"I thought if I hit a good shot with a sand wedge, I could start with a birdie and calm down after everything that's been going on through the week," Garcia said. "And I hit it, and I saw guys on the green saying 'in,' and I thought, 'Perfect!' I couldn't have started in a better way."
The eagle gave Garcia a quick boost. He added three birdies and a bogey for a fairly steady 4-under 66 and a share of the lead at the time his round ended.
Meanwhile, Johnson tried to cut the corner on the short risk-reward par-4 11th but instead created some ripples in the pond. He ended up needing a 3-foot putt just to make double-bogey.
"It was not the start I wanted," Johnson said.
But he had six birdies on his final 16 holes, including the next hole after the double, to match Garcia's 66.
"I was proud of the way I fought back and played well," Johnson said.
Garcia was just happy he was able to play. He pulled out of Monday's British Open qualifier at Gleneagles Country Club in Plano, Texas, because of an infected fingernail in his left hand that didn't allow him to grip the club comfortably after four holes. He hit very few balls and didn't play the TPC Four Seasons course at all before teeing off Thursday. Some antibiotics and cream helped.
"It's just a little sore, but definitely I can play without having to think about it, which is good," Garcia said.
One thing Johnson has that Garcia wants is a spot in the British Open. A victory this week certainly would help his candidacy. Even though Garcia withdrew from the qualifier, he could get in depending on how he does leading up to the event, though it won't be easy.
Johnson and Garcia spent most of the day talking to each other. It was clearly a comfortable pairing for both of them. The two played so well that it left K.J. Choi, the winner of The Players Championship a few weeks ago, as the third wheel. And he lagged behind on many holes, while Johnson and Garcia took turns pounding the ball off the tee.
When either player didn't have particularly great drives, he was able to make up for it with nice wedge play and timely putts. It helps that the course seems to set up well for them. Garcia won the Nelson in 2004 and has five top-20 finishes out of 10 starts. Johnson tied for seventh in 2010 and tied for fourth in 2009.
"Some courses just feel right to you," Johnson said. "I play well here. Sergio looked comfortable, too. He made some putts and was hitting the ball where he wanted."
While Garcia is busy trying to find his game in time to qualify and hopefully contend at the remaining majors, Johnson is adjusting to a new caddie.
"I heard Dustin was looking and told him I was interested," said Joe LaCava, Fred Couples' longtime caddie. "We worked together at The Players, and he decided to make it official."
LaCava gives Johnson an experienced caddie and one who is used to dealing with a long hitter.
"He's got impressive talent and can overpower a golf course," LaCava said. "I'm used to that and guys that are aggressive with the course. And I know the guy can putt. When you've got power and can putt, that's a great combination."
LaCava has heard the stories about Johnson's athletic ability, which includes a huge vertical leap and some prowess on the basketball court.
"I can't wait to shoot the rock with him," said LaCava, 46. "I hear he can dunk. All I can do is hang on the rim."
Garcia, who stands at 5-foot-10 and looked like a point guard trying to guard a power forward as he walked down the fairway with the 6-4 Johnson, is just hoping to hang around this weekend and put himself in position to win for the first time since 2009 on the European Tour in Shanghai. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since The Players Championship in 2008. A victory also would help his standing for the U.S. Open, another field he isn't in at the moment.
He's won in Dallas and Fort Worth, so maybe Texas is the right place for him.
"All those good vibes help," Garcia said. "When you go back to a course that you've done well and won, it's always nice. It's helpful."
Richard Durrett covers golf for ESPNDallas.com.