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February 15 2013

6:56 PM

Schwartzel makes Riviera debut count

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Charl Schwartzel walked to his ball in the middle of the 18th fairway on Friday thinking he had a chance to pencil in a sixth  birdie on his scorecard.

But he missed the green, as well as a 10-footer to save par, and Schwartzel had to be content with a 67 that left him in a tie at 6 under, three strokes off the pace being set by Sang-moon Bae. Not bad for his first two rounds -- ever -- at Riviera Country Club.

"I'm very happy," the South African said. "... At least I put myself in position for the weekend. There's still 36 holes to go and if I keep playing like I am, who knows."

Indeed. Schwartzel has been one of the best golfers on the planet over the last few months. He closed out the 2012 European Tour season with a two finishes of fifth or better, including a tie for third in Dubai, then started the new one with a 12-stroke win at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and solo second at the Joburg Open. Oh, and he found time to blitz the field in Thailand by 11 strokes, as well.

So it's hardly surprising to see Schwartzel in contention again at his 2013 PGA TOUR debut. The 2011 Masters champ joked that he's "lucky" but more likely his success of late can be traced to the fact that the abdominal tear he suffered at the U.S. Open has completely healed and he can swing pain-free again.

"I fixed up my swing after the injury," Schwartzel said. "... That got me back to the consistency that I had going back just about the Masters time. I obviously played some courses back down south which I'm familiar with and that always helps. So with the swing changes, that's worked, or the improvements, I should say; some consistency has come and some confidence. So that was probably key."

The win in Thailand was Schwartzel's first -- anywhere in the world -- since the Masters. The breakout 2011 season also included a tie for ninth at the U.S. Open and top-20s in the other two majors. His only top-10s last year, though, came before his title defense at Augusta National and injuries began to set him back.

Like nearly every major championship winner, Schwartzel acknowledges it can be difficult to deal with the expections -- self-imposed and otherwise.

"It doesn't get bigger than (winning a major)," Schwartzel said. "So when you play in a normal event, you think there's no reason why you shouldn't win, and that pressure comes from yourself. And this game, you don't want to put unnecessary pressure on yourself. It does make it difficult."

Schwartzel says he was able to get away from the pressure on the golf course -- that's where he felt "normal" again. But he's glad to put the frustrations of 2012 behind him and anxious to see what the new year brings.

"It almost seems like you've got to fall before you get back up again," he said. "So that's basically what it looks like has happened to me." 

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