Can Masters finally be major win for Westwood, Garcia?

Jim SLATER
Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia (R) are early title contenders in the Masters in Augusta, Georgia

England's Lee Westwood and Spain's Sergio Garcia, two epic nearly men of golf still seeking their first major title, withstood blustery conditions Thursday to become early title contenders at the Masters.

Westwood, three-over after 12 holes, birdied five in a row starting at the par-5 13th for a two-under par 70 that left him third after 18 holes, five adrift of US leader Charley Hoffman and one back of American William McGirt.

"It was nice to make five birdies in a row," Westwood said. "Really got some momentum going. Got me back in the tournament."

On one of the windiest days ever seen at Augusta National, Garcia shared fourth after firing the lone bogey-free opening round, a 71, with 17 pars and a lone birdie at the par-4 eighth.

"I'm happy with it," Garcia said. "Under the conditions we played on, to be able to go bogey free -- I don't know if it's probably my first bogey free round here at Augusta -- it was good to do that.

"I would have loved to have made a couple of those birdie putts I had, but I hit some good putts. And it's very difficult when it's this gusty, too It's hard to figure out the right clubs and you need to get a few breaks."

Major breaks have been few and far between for Garcia and Westwood, European Ryder Cup stalwarts, as they have sought major breakthroughs.

In 75 major starts, 43-year-old Westwood has 18 top-10 finishes and 10 top-4 efforts without a victory. He shared second at last year's Masters, third in 2012 and was the 2010 runner-up at the Masters and British Open.

Westwood, whose most recent win came at the 2015 Indonesian Masters, said he kept his composure after his poor start.

"I wasn't too disappointed," he said. "I was just trying to not make any silly mistakes on 10, 11, 12 and play my way out of the tournament."

- 'Hitting the ball nicely' -

Garcia, 37, is in his 74th major this week, with 22 career top-10 showings and eight top-4 finishes without a victory -- a void he dreams of filling by taking a green jacket on Sunday.

"I would love to, yes," Garcia said. "I feel like my game is in pretty good shape. I feel like I'm hitting the ball nicely. Even though today wasn't maybe my best ball striking round, I still hit a lot of good shots.

"I just need to keep working hard on my short game and get more confidence in there and if I can manage to do that, then I should be able to do that (win)."

Garcia, heckled by US fans at last year's Ryder Cup about his lack of a major title, found it easier to keep his cool in front of the appreciative Masters crowd.

"I played fairly well, stayed quite patient and I got a couple decent breaks on a couple holes that helped me salvage par and kept my round going," Garcia said. "But it wasn't easy out there."

Garcia, who last won in February at Dubai, was a 2007 and 2014 British Open runner-up and finished second at the 1999 and 2008 PGA Championships.