Garcia zeros in on biggest win of career
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Sergio Garcia knows this feeling all too well. Once again, he is knocking at the door, in position to claim a prestigious tournament, just 18 holes from capturing the winner's trophy.
He also knows the feeling of emptiness when it doesn't happen. From the 1999 PGA Championship to last year's British Open, Garcia has repeatedly gotten himself into contention, only to fall mind-numbingly short on every previous occasion at professional golf's five biggest individual events.
And yet, when Garcia was asked after Saturday's third round of the Players Championship if he experiences any self-induced pressure in these situations, he answered directly and succinctly, proffering only a one-word response: "No."
And The Winner Is...Paul Goydos: 7-under 209 Needs to: Remain patient and realize that an even-par 72 may be enough to earn the third victory of his 16-year career -- and certainly the biggest. "The ultimate thing you have to do in the job is, you need to stay patient," Goydos said. That will be important on Sunday. Needs to avoid: Missing as many greens in regulation as he has over the tournament's first three rounds. The third-shortest driver on the PGA Tour this season, Goydos is often hitting hybrids and longer irons into holes, which has resulted in a GIR percentage of 57.41 -- tied for 42nd in the field. Kenny Perry: 6-under 210 Needs to: Continue grinding out pars. Through three rounds, he's posted just 10 birdies, but offset them with only four bogeys -- a shockingly good number on this course. There won't be many red numbers to be had in the final round. Needs to avoid: Thinking too much about what a victory could bring later in the year. A native of Kentucky, Perry has his sights set on making the Ryder Cup at Valhalla and his chances would greatly increase with a win here. "That's my only goal," he said. "It's not about winning for me." Sergio Garcia: 4-under 212 Needs to: Remain blazing hot with the driver and irons in his hands. More often than not, The Players champion is the competitor who leads the field in GIR, which should be a good sign for Sergio. Needs to avoid: Like you have to ask? Garcia doesn't need to start draining putts from all over the greens, but making everything inside of 8-10 feet and avoiding three any putts will be of utmost importance on Sunday. -- Jason Sobel
Whether Garcia truly is immune to the pressure or simply won't allow an inspection into his innermost machinations remains unknown, but it's a proper attitude for a player of such immense talent who knows that patience is a virtue when it comes to reaching the pinnacle of this sport's most elite level.
Make no mistake, a victory at the Players -- where he stands in sole possession of third place, three strokes behind leader Paul Goydos -- would be more important than any of Garcia's 16 previous professional titles. It would be the crowning individual achievement to date for a player whose success is so often measured solely by his unequaled, overly impressive Ryder Cup record, whose greatest victories have come at the Colonial, Mercedes Championship, Byron Nelson Championship and European Masters.
Let's get one thing straight, though: This isn't do-or-die, make-or-break time for El Niño. At 28, he'll have myriad opportunities and will -- mark it down -- win his fair share of big-time events. Do the math: If Garcia has another two decades of world-class golf left in the tank -- a stark reality in a sport where older often means better; consider the exploits of Bernhard Langer, 50, and Kenny Perry, 47, both of whom are currently in the top-five on the leaderboard -- that's 100 chances at major championships and The Players. And he's not taking the collar. Not even close.
That's why another close-but-no-victory-cigar result will hardly be the tragedy some will presume. Currently 18th in the World Golf Ranking, Garcia has a 53-event PGA Tour winless streak that dates back to the now-defunct Booz Allen Classic in 2005. But he owns as much talent as any player not named Eldrick. Just ask the man he's chasing.
"He's a top-10 player," said Goydos, who was paired with Garcia on Saturday. "Whatever shot is needed at a particular hole at a particular time is the shot he hits, and he's a pretty impressive player. I expect him to be a formidable challenge."
For Garcia to challenge for the title at TPC Sawgrass, he'll need to continue hitting fairways and greens at a blistering pace. So far, he's found the short grass off the tee a tournament-best 34 of 42 times -- NBC analyst Johnny Miller called him a "driving genius" -- while also leading the field with a greens in regulation number of 83.33 percent.
The reason Garcia isn't leading the tournament outright, the reason he called his last two rounds of 1-over 73 "the highest possible score I could have shot," is an old, familiar tale. His putting woes have long been documented and haven't improved this week. Garcia has taken 29, 33 and 34 putts in the first three rounds, respectively, ranking dead last in the field and leaving him an an astounding six putts per round more than Goydos.
"I felt like I putted nicely," said Garcia, who has recently been working with short-game guru Stan Utley. "Unfortunately, the putts [just] didn't want to drop."
If Garcia can get a few of those putts to drop in Sunday's final round, he may just earn the biggest victory of his 10-year pro career. If it doesn't happen, though, there's still plenty of time for Garcia to find the winner's circle at one of these elite events -- and he knows it.
"I've just got to go out there and try to shoot the lowest score I can shoot, and hopefully it's good enough," he said. "And if not, we'll come back next year."
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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