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In a love-hate affair with Augusta, Friday the former for Garcia

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Garcia moves into a tie for third place and one stroke off the lead on Friday. (Getty Images)  
Garcia moves into a tie for third place and one stroke off the lead on Friday. (Getty Images)  

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Turns out Sergio Garcia saved his flashiest birdie for after the round.

Back in the weekend mix at the Masters for the second year in succession, the swashbuckling Spaniard had just completed one of his best Masters rounds in years Friday when he was asked about the infection he has been fighting on his left hand.

It's some sort of fungus in the nail of his middle finger. Given Garcia's playful streak and occasional friction with the media, you can probably guess what happened next.

"It's this one," Garcia laughed, all innocent, flipping a spectacular bird for all the room to see.

Or maybe that's the Spanish way of saying, "I'm Numero Uno," which isn't far from the truth.

With a second-round 68, Garcia broke 70 for only the third time in his past 24 rounds at Augusta National and moved into a tie for third, one stroke off the lead, which means the golf globe will again be casting its eyes its way this weekend to see if he can finally claim his elusive first major title.

2012 Masters

Despite his considerable gifts, Garcia has mostly been a mess at the Masters, only twice finishing in the top 10 and never really factoring into the Sunday slam dance. Meanwhile, he has had chances to win each of other three majors, including fairly recently. It raised the question as to whether the course, or the tournament, is the least suited to his game.

Garcia all but laughed.

"It's the one that I have done the worst, so probably," he said.

To call his dalliances with Augusta National a love-hate affair might be only a slight reach, though for every nicety Garcia offered about the place Friday, he countered with a caveat about the weather, course condition or difficulty of the course after the last major redesign.

"I think it's just an amazing place," he said. "Obviously it would be nice to play with good weather and play the course the way it's supposed to play, firm, kind of firm greens and things like that.

"Unfortunately it feels like since they made all the changes just after 1999, we have not been able to really play that way. I don't know why. It's just unfortunate."

This unrestrained refrain might sound familiar. Three years ago, frustrated after another uninspired finish at T38, he told the Golf Channel, "I don't like it, to tell you the truth. I don't think it's fair and it's just too tricky. Even when it's dry, you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It's just too much of a guessing game."

When Garcia was asked a moment later how he'd improve the course, at least he didn't suggest blasting caps and a bulldozer.

"I don't care," he told the network. "They can do whatever. It is not my problem. I just come here, play golf and go home."

Two days later, his management company issued an apology. Unfortunately, that represents the biggest impact he has made at Augusta National since he finished T4 in 2004, which was mostly the result of a closing 66 that jumped him 16 spots overnight.

At T3, it represents his best position at Augusta in his 14 career starts, so he's certainly positioned to make a run at snapping his Grand Slam skein, which stands at 53 events.

If only his tender finger, which occasionally bleeds while he is playing, cooperates. It's a little unclear how Garcia keeps contracting the infections -- he had a similar issue last year -- but maybe it's a case of athlete's foot from removing his shoe from his mouth a little too often.

This week, though, Garcia showed up in an especially good state of mind, longtime caddie Glen Murray said.

"He played awesomely," Murray said. "His driving has been amazing -- he has missed very few fairways. But what seems to be really sharp is his focus."

Words not often said for Garcia, forever the excitable boy.

"You said that, not me," Murray countered.

Guilty as charged. But since Garcia left the sport to decompress for a few weeks two years ago, he has seemed less tightly wrapped. He won twice in Europe last year and has climbed back into the relevant file, sitting at No 21 in the world this week.

As ever, Garcia's post-round rap made a few eyeballs roll but elicited a few laughs as well. It's part of the guy's undeniable charm. Last year, Garcia was playing solidly and was in 12th place heading to the third round, but he imploded on Saturday with a 76 that he compared to Rory McIlroy's final-round header a day later.

His playing partner that day, former Masters champion Angel Cabrera, put his arm around Garcia's shoulder.

"He said, just keep going, don't worry about it, these things happen," Garcia recalled. "If you keep going the way you're going, you'll be fine. You'll manage to get through one day."

Actually, at 32, Garcia still has time and the talent to amass a bunch of majors.

One digit at a time.

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