Garcia leads Europe's head-shaking brigade

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The Independent Online

Sergio Garcia today has the chance to notch up the biggest success of his career at the same time as redressing one of the more embarrassing statistics of European golf. Not since 1987, when good old Sandy Lyle prevailed, has "one of ours" won The Players Championship. Indeed, that was the one and only time.

Which highlights just how arduous the young Spaniard's task will be as he attempts to overhaul the one-shot lead of the Canadian Stephen Ames. Especially as the world No 2, Vijay Singh, is up alongside Garcia and luminaries such as Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson and ­ whisper it ­ Tiger Woods are by no means out of it.

In fact, the pacesetter himself is a renowned player of tough conditions and if yesterday is anything to go by, that will be one precious attribute.

For Greg Owen's calamity on the fourth hole seemed to trigger a whole afternoon of them here yesterday. One behind the lead after birdies at the first two holes, the quadruple-bogey eight on the short, but evil, par four was born of one visit to the water and a vicious slice.

From there the 34-year-old from Mansfield managed to by-play the remainder of his round in one-under. Which was to prove some achievement as disasters began emerging from every corner of Sawgrass.

Take Adam Scott, joint second at the start and then tied 51st at the close, as eight bogeys and one double on his first 11 holes led to an 82. Or what about poor Arron Oberholser, who moved steadfastly into the lead after 16 holes, but oh so quickly out of it when visiting the water on both the 17th and 18th for a triple-double finish?

But in fairness he was not the only one flapping as even Garcia threatened the welfare of his neck by shaking his head so often. For the first 12 holes he was control personified with nine pars and three birdies on a day when every other player in the field took bogey.

But then so did he, not once but twice, on the 13th and 14th as his short-putt demons came down for a visit. And had it not been for a brave save from eight feet on the 15th then a trio of blunders may very well have derailed him. A two-putt birdie at the par-five 16th, however, recovered his poise. "I'm satisfied as it was so difficult," he said. "But it's only going to get tougher out there."

That was an ominous statement as the winds were swirling with such direction-changing menace yesterday that Woods spoke after his 73 of actually taking a few of his shots quickly so as to catch a gust.

The world No 1 simply shrugged his shoulders and accepted Mother Nature's vagaries, but he was not so c'est la vie about the rest of the conditions. The eight-inch rough he termed as "brutal" and the greens ­ soft on the lower levels, hard as concrete up top ­ as "really inconsistent".

Nevertheless, seven back, Woods admitted he wants it as snotty as possible today. "I need it to blow like this and play one great round of golf," he said.

What he would give today, what anyone would ever give, for Henrik Stenson's hole-in-one on the 13th. That propelled the impressive Swede into a shortlived share of the lead. Eventually he closed with a 70, four behind Ames. Not the worst back-up for Europe should the young Spaniard falter.