PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. | Sergio Garcia was already one of the most popular players at The Players Championship each year.
Add a Masters title to his resume, his hole in one here on Thursday, and some of his supporters might have thought Garcia could walk across the water from the 17th tee to the Island Green.
His popularity might have reached new heights on Saturday when Garcia made a charge up the leaderboard. Starting the day in a tie for 43rd following his 144 total the first two rounds, Garcia parlayed six birdies and an eagle into a round of 67. He starts the final day in a tie for seventh at 5-under 211, four shots out of the lead.
After signing his scorecard, Garcia was serenaded with cries of “Sergi-O, Sergi-O, Sergi-O” by a throng of young fans. It made for an easy response when asked how’s been received this week.
“You know the answer,” he said with a smile. “It’s been great. I’ve always had great receptions here, but this year, it’s definitely been even better than ever.”
It’s been a steady improvement for Garcia, who started sluggishly with a 4-over 40 on the front side in Thursday’s opening round. But it’s been lights out since then. Garcia has rebounded from that slow beginning and has shot 9 under in his last 45 holes.
“Yeah, great day,” he said. “Yesterday was important to make the cut after how overwhelming everything has been after the Masters. Today, I was able to hit some really, really quality, some really good quality shots. Thanks to that and some great putts and thanks to that, we were able to shoot a very good 5 under.”
The Players is the first tournament that Garcia, 37, has played since winning The Masters in early April, his first major title. When the starter introduced him on the first tee on Thursday as “the current Masters champion,” Garcia admitted afterward that “my head went up into the clouds.” It showed as he had three bogeys and a double bogey in his first six holes.
It wasn’t rust from not playing in tournaments because Garcia said he practiced for a solid two weeks.
“I didn’t feel rusty game-wise. I felt rusty probably head-wise,” he said. “I felt like there were a lot of thoughts going in my head, and the first day I was still thinking about the Masters and everything that has been going on.
“To have the finish that I had on Thursday and then shoot a solid round yesterday, make the cut, and then kind of free up a little bit today and play a little bit more like I was playing the week of the Masters. I felt like a little bit in chains on Thursday … because of how overwhelming everything has been.”
Garcia’s only pitfalls Saturday came at the start and finish of his round and at No. 10. He missed par putts of 7, 6 and just under 10 feet on those three holes. Those were the only blemishes on a round of 67, the fifth consecutive Players tournament that he’s carded 67 or better in at least one of the four rounds.
In between his bogeys at 10 and 18, Garcia had three birdies and an eagle, the latter at No. 16 when his approach shot at the par-5 hole landed on the fringe, just 17 feet away. From there, Garcia chipped it in for his second eagle of the tournament, the first being his ace at No. 17 on Thursday.
Garcia leaves little doubt he’s savoring his Masters win as much as possible. He was asked if he had his ceremonial green jacket with him.
“I do. Wouldn’t you?” Garcia deadpanned among the laughter. “It’s simple. When we get to the Masters next year they’re going to take it away, so I think I’m going to hold on to it as long as I can for this year.”