Some three weeks ago, in the midst of a hissing match with Tiger Woods, the Spaniard made a racially tinged remark about inviting his rival over for dinner and serving fried chicken. Widely criticized at the time, Garcia has apologized to Woods both privately and publicly. Yet there were some lingering questions about how he’d be received at Merion Golf Club this week by a sometimes-tough Philadelphia sports crowd.
“There were a couple here and there, but there was — I felt the people were very nice for the whole day. I think that almost all of them were behind me,” Garcia said afterward, “and that was nice to see.”
The same unfortunately, couldn’t be said for Garcia’s golf game.
He shot a 3-over-par 73 Thursday, and that after recovering from a double-bogey, quadruple-bogey stumble at Nos. 14 and 15, where Garcia hooked both of his tee shots out of bounds.
“The U.S. Open doesn’t give you much room,” he said, then conceded the margin for error at 14 and 15 wasn’t his problem.
“The out of bounds is close, but if you hit a bad shot, even if it’s far away, you’re going to find it. ... I guess I was just making my week a little bit tougher,” he added. “But I tried to battle as much as I could coming in.”
Garcia teed off alongside Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink amid cheers and a few scattered boos on the 11th hole at 7:44 a.m., and was cruising until the 14th. No sooner had his tee shot flown the coup at that hole than heavy rains came down and caused a 3½-hour delay.
Garcia described his return this way: “Hit another 3-wood, 7-iron to about 16 feet and managed to two-putt for par.
“Sorry,” he added quickly, to some laughter. “Par with the second ball.”
The delay may have given the occasional hecklers around the course a chance to down a few beers and screw up their courage. As Garcia reached the first green, where he had an 8-footer for birdie, a fan holding a beer yelled, “Hey, head case! Let’s see you blow it 10 feet by.”
Instead, Garcia drained the putt for birdie, then made eagle at the par-5 second hole with a big drive, another 3-wood to 16 feet and made that putt as well. That left him at 4-over.
“But then I hit a couple of bad shots,” Garcia said. “So I don’t know. It was a pretty flat round for most of the day.”
Not for everyone, though.
As Garcia started down the No. 5 fairway, a fan lining the ropes yelled, “I ate the bones!” — the punch line from a new round of commercials for KFC. Yet just another 100 yards, as Garcia passed by, another fan said, “I hate Tiger, too!”
On and on it went at nearly all of the closing holes. Many fans cheered and a few expressed loud support for Garcia, only to have someone yell something like “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” as one did standing on a patio of a pricey home alongside the sixth fairway.
The wear and tear of a long day finally seemed to show on Garcia on the par-3 ninth, his next-to-last hole. When his tee shot there fluttered off to the right and into a greenside bunker, his shoulders slumped and he walked across the tee box dragging his club behind him like a broom. Yet he hit a terrific wedge into No. 10 that bounced twice and slammed on the brakes just two feet from the hole for birdie.
If only his efforts to make up with Woods had gone that smoothly. Garcia walked over to where his rival was practicing on the range Monday and offered his hand. The two shook, and briefly exchanged a few words.
Garcia also left a note in Woods’ locker. Asked if there was a response, he said simply, “No. I haven’t really seen him.”