Dressed from head to toe in black, Sergio Garcia dedicated a pleasing start in his Ryder Cup warm-up event to Celia Barquin Arozamena, the promising young Spanish golfer who was murdered on a golf course in the United States earlier this week.
In his first competitive round in five weeks, the Spaniard made seven birdies as he carded an impressive five-under-par 66 on the Arnold Palmer-designed Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course in Villamoura.
Even though that left him three shots off the lead at the Portugal Masters and two strokes behind one of his playing partners, Matt Wallace, it was a satisfying day’s work for Garcia, who only added the European Tour event to his schedule after controversially securing one of Thomas Bjorn’s four wild cards for next week’s match in France.
“I’m happy with it,” Garcia told Sky Sports Golf. “Obviously, I’m not going to lie, it was nice. There were a couple of shots here and there that I could have done better with but, overall, I felt I played at a good level.”
In a post on social media, Garcia said he’d been left “heartbroken” by Barquin, a 22-year-old who won the European Ladies’ Amateur Championship earlier this year, being found dead on a course in Iowa, where she was a student. The pair had met in the past and the 2017 Masters champion admitted: “It was nice to shoot a nice score and dedicate that a little bit to Celia after what happened earlier in the week. I was wearing black for that, too.”
Garcia, who got the nod from Bjorn over the likes of Wallace, a three-time winner on the European Tour this season, and Rafa Cabrera Bello for the last of his spots, opened with a birdie as he started from the tenth and quickly moved to three-under with further gains at the 12th and 14th. A fourth birdie of the day at the 11th was followed straight afterwards by a first dropped shot as he three-putted from just off the back of the green. The 38-year-old then birdied both the fifth and sixth before giving one of those shots back at the difficult seventh, a par 4 measuring 510 yards.
If he was watching on TV, Bjorn would certainly have been encouraged by Garcia’s finish as he stuck his tee shot to within a foot at the short eighth then made a great up and down at the ninth, holing from 12 feet to save par.
“That was nice, too, and hopefully I can make plenty of those next week,” he admitted, smiling. “It was nice to have a solid round. It could have better a little bit better, I think, but overall it was good.
“You are obviously a bit rusty, so there are little things you have to work with in your mind. The important thing today was that I stayed patient and calm. Even when I missed some birdie putts early on, I kept at it.
“The goal was to come here and do as well as I can. To get the competition juices going. Go through some of the emotions on the golf course, some of those tough shots you are going to have next week and try to deal with them as best as possible. I was able to do that fairly well for the most part today and hopefully I can keep doing that throughout the week.”
Bjorn described Garcia as “the heartbeat of the team” when he overlooked his poor form this season to hand him a pick along with Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey. Garcia’s eyes lit up as he was asked what playing in a ninth Ryder Cup meant to him.
“It is special,” he said. “There’s nothing like it. Winning it us even better. But, win or lose, to have the possibility of being part of a Ryder Cup team, playing in your colours and playing with some amazing friends, there is no other tournament like it. That’s one of the reasons I love it.”
Asked about the role he will playing in trying to help his team-mates at Le Golf National, he added: “I have to. It is my duty, I am the veteran, even though it sounds funny. I like doing that. I like the way I was treated when I came into the team and I want to make sure the rookies feel good.
“It’s not only my job. Everybody is going to do it. All the guys who have played are going to help out. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to make sure that rookies feel as comfortable as possible. If we can manage to do that, we all gain something.”
Taking up where he left off when winning the Made in Denmark, the final qualifying event in the battle for Ryder Cup spots, Wallace carded an eagle and five birdies as he set the clubhouse target along with compatriot Eddie Pepperell before Australian Lucas Herbert came in late in the day with a 63. “I don’t think so,” replied Wallace to being asked if he’d been under any extra pressure playing in the same group as Garcia, along with defending champion Lucas Bjerregaard. “It’s an absolute pleasure to be playing with both Lucas and Sergio. I still pinch myself that I’m in this situation.
“At the end of the day, the golf ball is going to do what I tell it to do. I was determined out there to play well, whether that was with Sergio or anyone else. But it was nice to do it with him. He’s a cool guy.”
Herbert carded an eagle and six birdies to finish a shot ahead of Wallace, Pepperell and Ireland’s Shane Lowry, with China’s Li Haotong a shot further back.
Maintaining his recent promising form, Stephen Gallacher opened with a 68, as did Open Silver Medal winner Sam Locke on his first start in a European Tour event. Scott Jamieson and David Drysdale carded matching 70s but Richie Ramsay (72), Bradley Neil (73), Marc Warren (75) and Connor Syme (76) are all fighting to make the cut.