PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
While much of the field struggled in Thursday’s opening round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, Sergio Garcia thrived.
The mere sight of TPC Sawgrass elevates his spirits. Winning the 2008 Players helps.
“I just love it,’’ Garcia said after storming to the first-round lead with a 7-under 65. “Valderrama [in Spain] and this course are some of my top favorite ones. For some reason, they just kind of fit my eye. I see what I want to do pretty much every hole and then it’s a matter of doing it.’’
Garcia did it all right. The 65 was his lowest ever in this tournament. He eagled the par-5 16th and the par-5 ninth, which was his final hole of the day, and had only one bogey. He was 4-under on his final three holes, with birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 before the closing eagle.
Garcia leads Brian Harman by two shots and Shane Lowry, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Corey Connors by three shots. Bryson DeChambeau and Lee Westwood are among those four back at 3-under.
Play was suspended due to darkness at 6:32 p.m. The 20 players who still must complete their respective first rounds will resume at 7:30 a.m. Friday and the second round will begin as scheduled, with tee times starting at 6:45 a.m.
Garcia, who’s finished in the top-three at the Players in four of his 20 career starts, is looking for some positive energy after the bitter disappointment of having to miss the Masters in November when he tested positive for COVID-19. Missing that Masters ended a streak of 84 consecutive major championships played for Garcia, which had been the longest active streak.
“It was unfortunate,’’ Garcia said. “I’m not too much of a record kind of guy, but it was nice to have that streak going. It was disappointing, I’m not going to lie.’’
Garcia said he got only “a tiny bit’’ sick from the virus, but his wife, Angela, caught it from him and “got it worse than me, unfortunately.’’
Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, said he plans to take extra precautions to make sure he’s healthy enough to go to Augusta next month.
“I’m not playing the week before,’’ he said of the Valero Texas Open, which isn’t far from where Garcia lives in Austin. “We have fans back, so you know that at any time you might get it from any one of them — not that they’re trying to give it to you or anything like that — but it might happen.
“I would love to get closer to the fans, but there’s too much at risk, at stake for us. If we get COVID because of anything, we’re the one that pays. We pay the price. So, we have to be very careful as the fans come back into our game, which is great to have them, don’t get me wrong.
One of the terrific stories unfolding on the day was Steve Stricker, the 54-year-old Ryder Cup captain, who was the fifth alternate to get into the field at the start of the week and got in when Justin Rose withdrew Thursday.
“I knew I was second alternate [Wednesday] and I knew Justin Rose wasn’t feeling so good and I heard that Harry English had a little bit of a back problem, so I started to plan,’’ Stricker said. “I found a local guy down in Naples, Florida, that I could use his plane kind of at the spur of the moment kind of deal, and the Tour was keeping me up to speed.
“Then, I’m laying in bed [Thursday] morning at 6:45, just kind of woken up, and they said, ‘You are now the first alternate.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m coming,’ because I knew Rosie wasn’t doing so well. He hadn’t even hit a ball from what I understand.’’
Stricker’s caddie for the week is Eric Larson, who’s English’s regular caddie. English withdrew earlier Thursday.
Stricker shot a 2-under 70 and enters Friday’s second round in contention.
“Crazier things have happened, right?’’ Stricker said. “I keep telling myself that.’’