LOS ANGELES (AP) — The fog was an unexpected guest, filling the fairways of Riviera so quickly that Sergio Garcia could barely make out the large bunker he was trying to avoid with his final tee shot. He could barely see the pin on the elevated green from about 180 yards away.
All the fans could see was a figure dressed in black, and his golf ball settling close to the pin. Garcia hit an 8-iron to about 6 feet on the ninth hole and rapped that in for his seventh birdie in an opening round of 6-under 65, leaving him one shot behind Matt Kuchar on Thursday in the Northern Trust Open.
Much as he tried, Garcia had few complaints. "Very happy with it, and first tournament in the U.S. this year, it was nice to start like that with three nice birdies," he said. "Then I managed to play quite good — not extremely well. I hit my drivers pretty good — obviously some drives here and there I would like to hit a little better. It was good. So very pleased with the round overall."
The 32-year-old Spaniard has high standards, accompanied by high expectations. His final hour of the opening round, however, raised hopes that he was emerging from somewhat of a foggy period in his career. Garcia failed to make the Ryder Cup team for Europe in 2010. Even as his game was rounding into form last year, he told Spanish reporters that he doesn't feel capable of winning a major. As if to prove a point, he missed the cut in the last two majors of the year.
But the round he put together Thursday at Riviera was a reminder of raw skill, and an upward trend. Garcia ended nearly a year without winning — four years on the PGA Tour alone — at the Wyndham Championship, a victory that enabled him to return to the Tour Championship for the first time since 2008. Since then, he has had five top 10s in eight tournaments, including another win at the Johor Open, where he closed with a 61.
But he still gets defensive. One reporter asked him about his form, mentioning tee shots that found bunkers at the wrong time, yet he still managed a 66. "You should try to hit every fairway. That's what I tried to do," Garcia said. "I feel like I'm playing quite well. I feel more comfortable with my irons than I feel with my driver. It doesn't mean that I'm driving the ball badly. But I'm not quite as confident with it. Those are things that happen."
Perhaps the best part of his day was that he finished. Eighteen players failed to finish the round, not unusual for a tournament that has a 144-man field, and it wasn't helped by the marine layer that blocked out the sun at the end of the day.
Kuchar also started with three birdies, and his day looked even easier. The longest putt he made all day was for par, and that was about 10 feet on No. 8. His opening three birdies were all inside 3 feet, and his longest birdie putt was 8 feet on the par-3 16th. He had no bogeys and signed for a 7-under 64.
Brandt Jobe, returning from a serious neck injury, made four straight birdies late in his round until a bogey on the 18th hole forced him to settle for a 66. Conditions have rarely looked this good at Riviera, from the firm grass below the feet and the magnificent, sun-filled sky above them — at least until the last couple of hours.
It felt like a working vacation, and it's the latter Kuchar knows so well. After opening with three straight weeks on the PGA Tour, which featured a pair of top 10s, he spent a week in Palm Springs and then took his family to Hawaii for paddle boarding, snorkeling — just about everything where an ocean is involved.
Getting back to golf, he worked with swing coach Chris O'Connell and felt just as good as he did before his break. "I think it was Monday we put in a good day of work and I said, 'I need to get out and play.' We went over to L.A. Country Club, played the North Course. I was excited about the things we were working on and excited how I was hitting the ball. ... I think the hot start was certainly a great way to get the round going."
It was a great day for scoring, and Kuchar had plenty of company. James Hahn, the 31-year-old rookie who shared the 54-hole lead last week at Pebble Beach, and David Lynn of England were at 67. Disney winner Charlie Beljan chose to finish in the fog after play was suspended. He closed with a bogey and had a 67. He had seven birdies.
Eighteen players failed to finish the round, not unusual for this tournament. They were to return Friday morning to finish, and then immediately start the second round. The group at 68 included Lee Westwood and 53-year-old Fred Couples, a two-time winner of this event who feels rejuvenated when he plays at Riviera. Also at 68 was Fredrik Jacobson, the last man in the 64-man field at the Match Play Championship. With a good week, he won't have to face Rory McIlroy in the first round next week.
Couples played the final Champions Tour event last year and the season opener this year, along with a two-day exhibition. He hasn't practiced much in between. "So it's surprising, but again, I can figure my way out around this course," Couples said.
He made clean, powerful contact for so much of the day, even producing the longest drive of his group on the par-5 17th over Westwood and Bubba Watson. Couples was pin-high on the hole for a simple up-and-down, the start of three straight birdies.
"It's kind of a golf course that if you play well, you can shoot a decent score," Garcia said. "But if you are not on, you can struggle quite a bit." Watson struggled. For the first time in nearly three years — dating to a second-round 73 in the 2010 Honda Classic — the Masters champion failed to make a single birdie. He had a 76.
Phil Mickelson also is trying to regain some form just two weeks after his record performance to win the Phoenix Open. He had said it was imperative to be in the fairway to approach the small greens of Riviera, and three fairways was not the blueprint he had in mind. Mickelson didn't hit a fairway until his 11th hole. Even so, he scratched out a 71 and felt he was only a round away from getting back into the mix.