117TH U.S. OPEN: DAY 2 OF PRACTICE
El Niño moves onward
Garcia ready to face next challenge after Masters victory

By GIDAL KAISER

June 14, 2017

Spanish professional golfer Sergio Garcia smiles as he works on the practice putting green Tuesday afternoon during the second day of practice for the 117th U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills in the town of Erin.
John Ehlke/Daily News

TOWN OF ERIN — He stepped onto the driving range, and began loosely swinging a club.

Wiser and still seemingly youthful after his first win of a major championship two months ago, Sergio Garcia began hitting balls on his first day at Erin Hills.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The 37-year-old won the Masters on his 19th attempt, and questions that arose soon after putting on his first green jacket were some of the first repeated Tuesday during a news conference prior to his first practice round for the 117th U.S. Open.

Can he win another major? Can he become the seventh player in golf history to win both The Masters and the U.S. Open Championship?

“It’s been a great experience to be able to call myself Masters champion, it’s something, it’s a dream come true and something that I’m extremely proud of,” Garcia said of his breakthrough. “But like I said after that, after Augusta, you know, it’s a different week, and that is not going to give me any advantage when we get on the first tee.

“You still have to focus hard and trust yourself, believe in your ability, commit to your shots and your thoughts and then hopefully have another good week here.”

The Masters victory served as his 13th top-five finish in a major and vaulted him to No. 7 in the world. He carded a 69 on the second day to vault into a first-place tie with four others, and held together as he and Justin Rose tied for the lead at six-under through the championship round and went into a playoff.

A birdie putt of nearly 10 feet dropped on the first playoff hole to give him the victory.

“Having all those chances and for it to be there, to be at Augusta where he’s had his struggles before, I don’t think you could have written it any better,” Rory McIlroy noted of Garcia’s win.

“Having all those chances and for it to be there, to be the Augusta where he's had his struggles before, I don't think you could have written it any better,” Rory McIlroy noted of Garcia’s Masters victory in April.
John Ehlke/Daily News

In 18 previous trips to Augusta, Garcia hadn’t finished higher than fourth, missed the cut five times and was tied for 34th in 2016.

“It was great to be able to watch. It was awesome,” McIlroy added. “I’m so happy for him. And he’s in a great place right now in his life. When he is, he seems to be playing very well. I look for him to do well again this week.”

Garcia became the first Spaniard to win the Masters since José María Olazábal in 1999. Garcia also won on the late Seve Ballesteros’ birthday, a fact that was not lost on him or another Spanish golfer, Jon Rahm.

“A close friend of mine winning a tournament motivates me. A Spaniard winning a major is always going to motivate me,” said Rahm, who has vaulted into the worldview recently by placing in the top five in six consecutive professional golf tournaments.

“With all the places, and all the possible days (Garcia) could have won, being Seve’s birthday at Augusta, I don’t think you would ever get much more special than that for him, especially being a course where he struggled mentally in the past.”

He became the sixth consecutive first-time major winner, and noted “My goal, obviously, is to make it stop this week and hopefully get a second one.”

But he also comes into Thursday’s first round having tied for 30th, 20th and 12th, respectively, in the tournaments between the Masters and Open Championship. During Tuesday’s news conference, Garcia mentioned patience and commitment multiple times as key to his Masters win and mindset each round.

“When it comes down to commitment it’s just a matter of believing,” Garcia said. “I think that at the Masters I did that very, very well with all aspects of my game. The last three weeks — Players, Byron Nelson and Colonial — I struggled a little bit with that. My commitment wasn’t as sharp as it was at the Masters. I don’t know if it was because everything that’s been going on after the win there and stuff.

“But we have to kind of collect ourselves again and make sure that when we get there on the first tee on Thursday that we’re fully committed, no matter what happens, and have as much patience as possible.”