PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When Sergio García was asked on Thursday how he ended up leading the Players Championship with a first-round 65 while Rory McIlroy, who was part of the same threesome, shot a seven-over-par 79, García raised his right hand and held his thumb and index finger about a quarter-inch apart.
“It’s the littlest things — tiny little things — that can make a round go from wrong to right,” García said. “It doesn’t take much.”
Little things have been on García’s mind for a while, ever since a positive coronavirus test in early November forced him to withdraw from the Masters just days before the tournament, which in 2017 yielded his greatest triumph in the game.
García said his Covid-19 symptoms were minor, although he believed that he infected his wife, Angela, who had a slightly worse reaction. He did not play again until mid-January, although part of that gap was a typical off-season layoff.
García’s performances have been nondescript this year, and with the next Masters — back in its usual spot on the calendar — only weeks away, he is plotting a more cautious strategy to avoid reinfection with the virus, however slight that risk.
Fans have returned to PGA Tour events, with as many as 10,000 welcome each day at the Players Championship this week, and García is happy for the energy the spectators bring. But he is wary, too.
“You know that at any time you might get it from any one of them,” García, 41, said. “Not that they’re trying to give it to you or anything, but it might happen.”
He added: “I would love to get closer to the fans, but there’s too much at risk for us. And if we get Covid, we pay the price. No one else does. So we have to be very careful as the fans come back into our game.”
García, who had a two-stroke lead over Brian Harman on Thursday when play was suspended because of darkness, also said he would skip the tour event the week before the Masters. Last year, he had played in the Houston Open, where he missed the cut and began to notice cold-like symptoms shortly thereafter.
García’s view of the Masters, and his zeal to play in it, has changed considerably since the 2017 tournament, the only major victory of a luminous career that needed a signature moment. His success that year was, apparently, all about the little things.
The Masters had not been kind to García in his 18 appearances before 2017. He finished inside the top 10 three times and outside the top 30 a dozen times.
García likes to fade the ball, and the Augusta National Golf Club, the site of the Masters, favors those who draw their shots. After a while, García’s slumped-shoulder body language at Augusta National shouted despair the moment he emerged from his car in the club parking lot. But with an infusion of positivity from Angela, then his fiancée, García proved resilient, even emboldened. Despite a couple of notable final-round stumbles in 2017, he mounted a surprising rally to win in a playoff.
Now he speaks of the Masters as if it were his favorite place to compete.
García’s withdrawal last fall ended his streak of 84 consecutive majors championships played, which dated to 1999, when he was only 19. García still had a long way to tie Jack Nicklaus’s record 146 consecutive majors played, but he was only four major appearances from passing Tom Watson for the second-most consecutive majors played.
“It was disappointing, I’m not going to lie,” he said of the end of his streak. “I’m not too much of a record kind of guy, but it was nice to have that streak going.”
García began Thursday’s round on the back nine and was three under at the turn, thanks to a birdie on the 15th hole and an eagle on the par-5 16th hole. He was at par for the next eight holes but closed with a flurry, as he birdied the seventh and eighth holes, then sank an 18-foot eagle putt on the par-5 No. 9 after a spectacularly placed 268-yard second shot that was struck with a 5-wood.
“This golf course just suits my eye,” García, the 2008 Players champion, said with a grin. “I feel more comfortable.”
McIlroy’s round was more the norm on a day when the greens were speedy and the rough a little more lush than it would be in May, the month when this event was held for several years. Henrik Stenson shot 85; Tony Finau, who has finished in the top four three times this year, shot 78; and Rickie Fowler’s slump continued with a 77. McIlroy hit his opening shot of the day out of bounds, and his first two shots on No. 18 (the ninth hole of his round) landed in the water, which led to a quadruple-bogey 8.
Addressing the subject of McIlroy’s play on Thursday, García once again used his right thumb and index finger to make a point.
“You don’t have to be that far off to get penalized a lot,” he counseled. “Just a little bit off.”