Sergio Garcia targets Masters win on ‘Ballesteros Sunday’

Sergio Garcia blasts out of a bunker on his way to  a second-round 69. Picture: Getty.

Sergio Garcia blasts out of a bunker on his way to a second-round 69. Picture: Getty.

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If he’d still been with us, Seve Ballesteros would be turning 60 tomorrow. How fitting it would be if that day was marked by a Spaniard becoming Masters champion. It could well happen with both Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm in the mix at the halfway stage in the 81st staging of this event, the most intriguing of golf’s four majors.

Garcia is in a four-way tie for the lead with American duo Rickie Fowler and Charley Hoffman, as well as Belgian debutant Thomas Pieters. Another American, William McGirt, sits a shot back in fifth, with Rahm, who is also playing here for the first time, alongside England’s Justin Rose and American pair Ryan Moore and Fred Couples on one-under.

Add in three former winners - Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth - lying just four shots off the lead plus career Grand-Slam chasing Rory McIlroy, who is in the mix on one-over, and an enthralling final two rounds lie ahead.

Ballesteros would be looking down with one of his huge warm smiles if Garcia in was the man having a green jacket slipped over his shoulders. He’s had 73 attempts so far at winning a major and is still empty-handed. Only Lee Westwood, with 75, has knocked at the door more in those events without seeing it swing open.

On another testing day at Augusta National, Garcia, who’d opened with a flawless 71, got off to a flying start with three birdies - the first time he’d achieved that feat here. Still three-under for the day at the turn, the 37-year-old had a bit of a wobble in Amen Corner, dropping shots at the 10th and 13th holes.

Birdies at the 15th and 17th, where a “hard 52 degree wedge” was despatched close to the hole, repaired that damage, though. He missed a great opportunity to finish with another gain only to see a three-foot putt bobble off to the right.

He wasn’t too bothered about that, though. A 69, which matched the best effort among the morning starters, put him in a share of the clubhouse lead with Hoffman. It had been a great two days’ work by Garcia. He’s determined not to get ahead himself, even though he is well aware of this particular Sunday being significant.

“I probably don’t want to think about it as it will probably be sensitive,” he replied to being asked if Ballesteros, a two-time winner here, would be on his mind if he is still in contention entering the back nine in the final round. “There are a lot of holes that I have to play the right way. I will have hopefully have that problem - it would be a nice problem to have. We’ll see what happens.”

This is Garcia’s 20th appearance in this event. He tied for eighth in 2002 before matching that finish in 2013. In truth, of the majors, it’s the one that many people have felt he’s always been least likely to win. Even after opening with 66 four years ago to lead, the cynics were quick to shoot down his chances.

Only time will tell if Garcia can prove them wrong but one thing for sure is that he’s never been happier in life. He’s due to get married later this year and that’s helping put a smile on his face off the course. On it, he showed his game was in good shape when winning the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February.

He talked after that success about how much he was looking forward to the majors this season. He can be encouraged that last year’s winner in Dubai, Danny Willett, went on to become Masters champion.

“You’ve really got to make peace with it a little bit,” he said of this course. “It is very challenging, especially in the wind, and I’m thrilled the way I have played the first two days.” On that missed short putt at the last, he added: “We misread it a little bit. It goes sideways, but I’m not complaining about that as I made a lot of great putts. You have got to miss some.”

Pieters, who starred as a rookie for Europe in last year’s Ryder Cup in Minnesota, is shining once again on American soil. After a second-round 68, the 25-year-old is in the hunt to become the first player to win here on his debut since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

“It’s a bit bold to say that you want to come here and win and then you don’t do it, and you look like a fool,” said Pieters as he also tried not to get ahead of himself. “As with any tournament, I just like to get in contention on Sunday afternoon, that’s all I want.”

Fowler, the 2015 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open champion, stormed into contention with a best-of-the-day 67. It was sparked by the 28-year-old holing out from a bunker for an eagle at the second. “It was big,” he admitted.

Fowler was in contention in all four majors in 2014. Like Garcia, he’s hoping this might be his weekend, having been handed a timely boost heading into the season’s opening major with victory in the Honda Classic. “We’ll be sticking to our game plan and making sure we go through the process and really getting committed,” said Fowler as he looked forward to the final two rounds.

Hoffman, who had started the day with a four-shot lead following his brilliant 65 on Thursday, had stretched that advantage to five at one point. He then came back to the field after dropping five shots in six holes around the turn. The 40-year-old showed he is made of stern stuff, though, by steadying the ship as he covered the last seven holes in one-under.

He signed for a 75. That may have been 10 shots more than his opening effort. Collectively, though, it was a praiseworthy openign 36 hles for the Californian. He was sitting second at the same stage two years ago before finishing fourth behind Spieth. Hoffman is delighted to be back in the hunt here.

“I’ve contended in a couple majors and obviously being in position going into Saturday here at the Masters is going to be special,” he said. I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself, but I’d be lying to say it’s not a great feeling and a great spot to be.” On his round, he said: “I got off to a great start but just wasn’t in position to attack this golf course like I was yesterday.

As everybody knows, you can make bogeys pretty quick. I was happy with the way I finished and I have given myself a chance going into the weekend.”

On his first appearance, McGirt, backed up an opening 69 with a 73. “It’s pretty cool to get to play the weekend in your first Masters,” said McGirt, a 37-year-old with both Scottish and Irish ancestry. “To be in a position to be able to make a run on the weekend makes it even more special. It sounds awesome.”

Rahm, yet another player trying to win first time out here in close to 40 years, looks as though he isn’t scared of anything. “I’m extremely excited,” said the 22-year-old of his lofty position, having already won on the PGA Tour this season and made his presence felt in two World Golf Championships. “I’m achieving goals at a really fast pace and want to keep it going,” he added.

This event always seems to have a “golden oldie” in the mix. Last year it was Bernhard Langer. This time it’s 57-year-old Couples, the 1992 winner. “It’s been a good two days,” he said after a second-round 70. “I really know the course very well. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to have two great days of golf. I feel like my age is still okay, because I can drive it far enough.”

In comparison to Couples, 46-year-old Mickelson is still a whippersnapper. It would be an equally great story, though, if he could claim a fourth green jacket by winning at the same age as six-time champion Jack Nicklaus did in 1986.

“Man, I fought hard today. It was a hard, difficult day,” said Mickelson after signing for a 73 that was a mixed bag of five birdies and six bogeys. “I struggled a little bit with the putter today. Hopefully with calm conditions I’ll get that thing dialed in tomorrow because I’ve been putting really well. And, if I can have a good putting weekend I’m going to have a good chance.”

Spieth, bidding to make amends for his back-nine capitulation in the final round last year, had a quadruple-bogey 9 as he opened with a 75. But the 23-year-old, who has finished second, first and second in his three starts here, hauled himself back into the picture with a 69, covering the last six holes in three-under as he came home in 33. “We’re in a position now where I think we can go out there and win this thing and certainly make a run,” he said.

McIlroy, who, of course, is chasing a career Grand Slam, had just birdied the 17th to get himself to level-par for the tournament when his approach at the last hit the flag and ended up off the green. He then missed a short putt to salvage par, signing for a 73. The world No 2 is ready to make his move over the weekend.

“I’m close enough,” insisted the four-time major winner. “I’m a little disappointed with what happened at the last there, but these things happen and if I can get off to a fast start tomorrow, a couple under through three, I’ll be right there. I feel like I’m playing well enough and I’m in a good frame of mind where I can go out there and attack and make some birdies.

As the cut fell at six-over, world No 3 Jason Day just scraped in, but those missing the cut included defending champion Danny Willett, two-time winner Bubba Watson and Open champion Henrik Stenson. Willett, who started his second round with an 8, is the first title holder to make an early exit since Mike Weir in 2004.

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