The last time Sergio Garcia participated in a full-field event in the Arabian Desert, he gained infamy for being disqualified after digging up the greens in anger. Here at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the Spaniard is back to doing what he does best - tearing up the course with a smile on his face.
A 69 took Garcia to eight-under and two of the halfway lead set by Italian Francesco Laporta. On a day when the breezes were strong enough to kick up the sand, Garcia put on the type of ball-striking display that made him so admired across the game. And, just as pertinently, there were none of the childish tantrums that have besmirched his reputation.
Indeed, it was difficult to equate this positive figure with the spoilt brat who took his frustrations out by damaging several putting surfaces with his club at last year’s Saudi International. Garcia turned 40 over the Christmas break and he arrived here at the start of the week promising that golf “would once see again the real Sergio”.
These are early days in 2020, but so far it is positive for the world No 41, who is desperate to reclaim the form that so memorably featured him breaking his major duck at the 2017 Masters.
Certainly, there was the potential for an early Garcia strop after he and Callaway, his equipment sponsor, split over a disagreement about his refusal to play with the company’s ball. Garcia is unattached for the time being and, therefore, can use whatever clubs he fancies. At the moment, he is armed with Ping irons and TaylorMade woods - and fortunately he is no longer employing his putter as a shovel.
“Today was an easy day to fall quite a bit behind and I'm happy with that,” he said. “I’m 40 now, and am closer to 60 than I am to 20. But fortunately for me, I was built the right way, so I’ve been pretty much injury-free for my whole career. I’m excited at what’s still to come”
As it turned out, it was the normally affable Shane Lowry with the disgraceful show of petulance that merits a fine. The 2019 Open winner bogeyed the 17th and then found himself in the greenside bunker on the 18th, needing a par to make the cut. The Irishman’s ball was under the lip and after an average recovery took his anger out on the sand, leaving a big crater - and not a great impression as defending champion as he exited on level par courtesy of this 74.
In Lowry’s absence, rookie Laporta has the advantage, with England’s Matt Fitzpatrick alongside Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello. Fitzpatrick has yet to make a bogey and his 67 looked ominously composed. The world No 25 has recorded five runner-up finishes since his last victory, 16 months ago. This could be the 25-year-old’s weekend and would go a long way to securing his Ryder Cup berth.
Brooks Koepka, the world No 1, is on three-under following a mediocre 75, with countryman Patrick Cantlay in the group - also including Lee Westwood - on seven-under