By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Westchester Country Club outside New York City used to be Sergio Garcia's favorite course on the PGA TOUR ... with good reason. He celebrated two of his eight TOUR wins there on the 18th green.
But Westchester hasn't hosted a regular TOUR event since 2007, so Garcia has a new No. 1. Anybody want to guess which course that might be?
After shooting a 7-under 65 in Friday's second round of THE PLAYERS Championship, Garcia again professed his love for the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. He won here in 2008, his biggest win on TOUR, and he's two rounds away from another career-defining victory after taking the lead midway through the second round at 11 under.
Although TPC Sawgrass doesn't usually provide a prolonged comfort zone for players -- one of the reasons no defending champ has ever repeated -- Garcia seems quite at ease on Pete Dye's par-72 layout.
"There's obviously two or three holes I'm not a huge fan of, comfort-wise," Garcia said about the Stadium Course. "But for the most part, I've always said it -- it's one of my favorite golf courses, and that's probably one of the reasons I tend to play fairly well when I'm here."
Garcia doesn't quite have the track record here that he did at Westchester; he hasn't finished in the top 10 at THE PLAYERS in his four starts since winning. But that's probably more a result of his overall struggles in those years.
His game is on the upswing now, with five top-10s in his last 11 starts on TOUR dating back to last year's win at the Wyndham Championship. So seeing him among the contenders after 36 holes is really no surprise.
Seeing him in contention here is definitely no surprise. Just like at Westchester.
"I've always liked those kinds of courses -- small greens, not particularly long, doglegs," Garcia said. "Courses that are asking you to maneuver the ball. This course is no different."
After shooting an opening 68, Garcia started Friday's round on the 10th hole and was a bogey-free 2 under at the turn. He then bogeyed the par-4 first hole when he found bunkers with his tee shot and approach shot.
That dropped shot turned out to be a wake-up call. Or maybe just a hiccup.
He birdied the par-5 second with two putts from 15 feet. Then the par-3 third with a putt inside 7 feet. Then the par-4 fourth from 8-1/2 feet. Then the par-4 fifth from 19 feet. Then he drained a 26-footer at the par-4 sixth.
Five consecutive birdies. And the biggest of the day was still to come -- a 40-foot putt at the par-3 eighth that moved him atop the leaderboard.
If Garcia goes on to win this weekend, he'll likely look at the six-birdie, seven-hole stretch as the turning point.
"Unfortunately we don't have enough of those," he said of the hot streak. "But when you start going like that, obviously it feels great. You know, everything seems kind of clearer in your head, you seem to see the break."
He just needs to keep his head clear for two more rounds. Right now, he'd be paired with Tiger Woods, who's 10 under through 36 holes, in the final group. It's always a challenge to play with Tiger in the final group on a weekend, but Garcia won't be focused on his playing partner.
Instead, he plans to call upon the good vibes he felt in winning in 2008, when he beat Paul Goydos in a playoff, as well as the year before that, when he finished second to Phil Mickelson. Until last year at Wyndham, Garcia's 2008 PLAYERS win had been his last on TOUR.
"What happened here five years ago was great," Garcia said. "What happened here six years ago was great.,
"Fortunately for me, I've managed to play quite decent on this golf course. So any good thing that you can get in your head, it's obviously positive, and those kinds of things always help.
"But it's a different year ... It's a different tournament. So we'll see if we can manage to do something similar."