PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Sergio Garcia was just 19 when he first challenged Tiger Woods during the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship.
Woods nipped the fist-pumping Spaniard — then affectionately known as El Nino — by a shot for a second major championship. Yet, the stage was set for a classic rivalry.
It never happened.
Tiger would do his part, but Sergio could not keep up, especially when the two were paired together.
Garcia, now 33, will get another chance to stand up to the pressure of a pairing with Woods on Saturday when the two longtime foes face off in the final group at The Players Championship.
Garcia, who is just 3-12-4 head-to-head with Woods, is playing his best golf since he won here in 2008. But he does not plan to gauge his game against the world’s No. 1 player, who sits a shot back at 10-under following his second straight 67.
“I don’t have to measure myself against anybody,” Garcia said Friday after he shot a 7-under 65 to take the lead at 11-under par. “I know what I want to try to do, and any given day I can shoot a round like this.
“Like we always say, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
The 2013 Players is not a two-man race, though. Ten players other than Woods are within four shots of Garcia’s lead.
On the strength of two eagles on the front nine Friday, 2009 winner Henrik Stenson is two shots back, as is Englishman Lee Westwood, who has not made a bogey in 36 holes this week.
Last year’s Players champion Matt Kuchar and reigning Masters champion Adam Scott are four shots back at 7-under.
“It’s still stacked up with so many guys with a chance going into the weekend,” said Woods, 37.
First-round leader Roberto Castro likely is among them.
A day after he tied the course record shared by Greg Norman and Fred Couples with a 63, Castro shot a 6-over 78.
Castro, a second-year Tour pro, looked at the bright side.
“I’m 3-under par, and beating 110 of the best players in the world through 36 holes,” he said.
Garcia could have used Castro’s attitude years ago when Woods played a role in the carefree El Nino becoming disillusioned with the game.
Seemingly destined for greatness at the 1999 PGA, Garcia still seeks his first major championship. Woods has 14.
Two of them, in particular, came at Garcia’s expense as their rivalry took on an ugly tone.
In the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island, Woods cruised to a three-shot win over Phil Mickelson. Garcia began the day four shots behind Woods but, faced with frequent heckling from the New York-based crowd, faded to a fourth-place finish, six shots back.
Four years later in the final round of the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool, Garcia was a shot behind Woods after a third-round 65. Three-putt bogeys on the second and third holes doomed Garcia, who shot 73 while Woods carded a 67 en route to his 11th major.
Garcia, who lost the 2007 British Open to Padraig Harrington in a playoff, has experienced disappointments that did not involve Woods.
At the 2012 Masters, Garcia concluded he might never win again.
“I’m not good enough,” he said. “I don’t have the thing that I need to have.”
A year later, Garcia has something he has not had in a long time: a chance to beat Woods.
Garcia, also a Players runner-up in 2007, has a good memories at TPC Sawgrass, where Woods has just one top-10 finish since his sole win in 2001.
“Good thoughts are always good,” Garcia said on Friday.
In Saturday’s third round, Garcia will have to put aside the difficult ones he has, courtesy of Woods.
(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services