On Thursday, in the first round of this year’s Masters, one year after that proclamation, he took an early step closer to shaking both those demons.
The 33-year-old Spaniard shot a late-day 6-under-par 66 and grabbed a share of the opening-round lead at the 77th Masters with Marc Leishman, a 29-year-old Australian who now calls Virginia home.
“Every time I tee off in a tournament, my goal is to play the best I can and have a chance at winning, so it doesn’t change this week,” Garcia said. “Today was a nice day. It was one of those days that you really, really enjoy, and, hopefully, I’ll have three more of those and we’ll see what happens Sunday night.”
Long-hitting Dustin Johnson is alone in third at 67, followed by a group of six at 68 that includes 2008 champion Trevor Immelman and popular 53-year-old Fred Couples, who has been in or near the lead in at least one round three of the last four years since turning 50.
On a day made for scoring, there were 33 rounds shot under par. One of those belonged to pre-tournament favorite Tiger Woods.
Woods shot 70, one of his second-best opening rounds here, with 30 putts and proclaimed himself “right there.”
Woods opened with 70 in three of his four Masters wins.
Among the other noteables, Phil Mickelson shot 71 with a bogey at 18, Rory McIlroy shot an even-par 72 and defending champion Bubba Watson shot 75. Fourteen-year-old Tianlang Guan was low teen at 1-over 73 after chipping in for birdie on 18.
Garcia has never really had an affinity for Augusta National. He has won a Players Championship but never a major, and had only two top-10 finishes at the Masters in his career. He was third after a second-round 68 last year, but shot 75-71 on the weekend and finished tied for 12th.
After the 75, he concluded he wasn’t “good enough to win a major” and proclaimed “I need to play for second or third place” in any of the majors, not just this one.
“Those were my words,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day we go through tough and frustrating moments and I know it was one of them.
“Maybe I didn’t say it the right way because it was one of those frustrating moments. What I felt is I definitely kind of shoot myself out of the tournament and that’s what I did that Saturday … but like I said every time I tee off I try to play as well as I can. If my best that week is really, really good, I’ll have a chance at winning. If my best is not that good, then I’ll struggle a little bit.”
He played “extremely well” through the first 10 holes Thursday. He went out in 32 and got it to 5 under heading into Amen Corner. He struggled with a couple of tee shots coming home, but managed to keep it in the road with two nice par saves.
“What I’m going to try to take into my pillow tonight is the first 10 holes,” he said. “Without a doubt I feel like it’s the best 10 holes I’ve played at the Masters.
“Scoring-wise maybe it wasn’t, but the way I hit the ball and the amount of birdie chances I gave myself … it meant a lot.”
Leishman, who has missed his last two cuts and four this season after a top-10 finish at Sony, stormed to the top of the leaderboard on the strength of a back-nine 31.
He bogeyed his first hole, which gave a lot of players trouble Thursday, but rallied to turn in 1-under. He birdied 10, and then zipped off four in a row (Nos. 13, 14, 15 and 16) to take a two-shot lead.
“I hit a lot of good iron shots on the back nine,” he said. “It was awesome getting on those sort of runs … but I never really got ahead of myself because I know that this course can bite you pretty quickly.”
Johnson, Kuchar and Couples all appeared in position to join the leaders before being derailed late in their rounds.
Johnson chipped in twice for birdie on the front and then took advantage of his prodigious length to eagle No. 13 and birdie 15 — both par-5s — to reach 6 under. But he hit a wayward drive on No. 17 and eventually made bogey to fall a shot back.
Couples, who led after Round 1 in 2010 and after Round 2 last year, got it to 5 under before bogeying No. 18. Kuchar also had it to 5 under through 15, but made bogey from the bunker on the par-3 16th.
“It was a good day,” Couples said. “I maybe hit one poor shot and it was an iron on No. 6 where I missed it well right, but the rest of it was good.
“I’m going to come out tomorrow and do everything I can to keep this thing going because I know I can play this course,” Couples said. “And if I hit it like that, I can play it every day.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.