NORTON — A storm blew through the Deutsche Bank Championship Sunday at TPC Boston, suspending play and making umbrellas the must-have accessory. When the thunderclaps quieted and the spigot in the sky was finally turned off, it was an El Niño that took its turn blowing through the course.
Sergio Garcia, the man nicknamed El Niño — Spanish for “the kid” — isn’t a kid anymore. He is an hombre with a hairline that is just beginning to retreat. But through three rounds, the 33-year-old has made the DBC look like child’s play.
The Spaniard, who entered the day with a one-shot lead, ended his round at dusk, shooting a 6-under-par 65 to get to 19 under and take a two-shot lead over Henrik Stenson into Monday’s final round.
“I felt like I played pretty good for pretty much most of the day,” said Garcia. “It got a little bit dark on the last hole. But I’m happy to be able to finish it off, and finish it off with a birdie, obviously.”
Finally, this year it is Garcia’s play that is the topic of conversation, not what he says away from the course or how he behaves on it. Garcia’s mouth can be a little bit like his game, mystifyingly wayward at times.
It was never more off the mark than at the European Tour awards dinner in May, when he made a racially insensitive joke in response to a question about Tiger Woods, with whom Garcia shares a relationship colder than the summit of Mount Washington.
On stage with the rest of the triumphant European Ryder Cup crew, Garcia was asked if he would have Woods over for dinner one night before the US Open.
He replied in cringe-inducing fashion, “We will have him ’round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”
Garcia apologized, feigned ignorance to the racial ramifications of his remark, and shook hands with Woods at the US Open. But his bad blood with Tiger and his bad attempt at a bon mot damaged a reputation that already had absorbed body blows for petulant displays on the course.
There is irony in Garcia being in position to win the tournament that Woods’s foundation is now running. Garcia originally didn’t even plan to play here. He is playing for the fifth consecutive week.
But he wanted to make sure he made the cut into the next event of the FedEx Cup playoffs. The top 70 players move on to the BMW Championship.
Garcia never quite has lived up to the hype that accompanied his arrival on the golf scene. There have been lightning bolts of brilliance, such as his heart-stopping Ryder Cup heroics at Medinah last year.
But he still never has won a major. He has won two PGA Tour events since 2008 and has yet to win on Tour this season. (Garcia was quick to point out he has won more often on the European circuit.)
His career is an example that prodigies can be prodigal with their talent.
He remains an engaging player, though, when his game clicks, clever, creative, and ebullient.
Garcia attacked the course, as the wet weather sent scores low. The longest putt he made during his round, which featured seven birdies and just one bogey, was a 10-foot-3-inch putt for birdie on the second hole.
Through three rounds, Garcia has hit 45 of 54 greens in regulation (83.3 percent). Only Stenson (85.2 percent) has been better.
The only hiccup Garcia had Sunday was a bogey on the par-4 14th that cut his lead to a stroke.
He can be forgiven because that was the most-bogeyed hole of the day, swiping strokes from 16 golfers. Garcia bounced right back with a birdie on No. 15 and closed at 19 under with a twilight 3-foot birdie on No. 18.
On a day when the rain softened the TPC greens and turned the course into a shooting gallery, Garcia wasn’t the top gun, but he was a steady shot.
“Well, you always, you know, like a true golfer should talk, feel like you leave something out there,” said Garcia. “But you know I feel like I played nicely. I feel like obviously two or three putts felt like they maybe deserved a little better than they got. But I hit good putts, and sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. But I think that maybe with the lead and shooting 6 under I would have taken it this morning. I cannot be disappointed.”
Garcia has not won on the PGA Tour in more than a year. He last won at the Wyndham Championship in August 2012. The last 10 times he has carried a lead or co-led into the final round of a Tour event, he has walked away with the trophy three times.
It seems that Garcia is a player always chased by his past — past words, past actions, past expectations. But it also appears he has learned to live in the now.
“At the end of the day the only thing I can do is go out there and give it my best,” said Garcia. “Sometimes my best is quite good, and sometimes it’s not that good. That’s the same thing I’m going to try tomorrow — go out and play the best I can. Hopefully, I’ll be able to believe in the way I’ve been believing this whole weekend. If I’m able to do that, I should have a good chance at winning. If not, then I’ll fight as hard as I can to get it.”
In sports, actions speak louder than words, and the best chance for Garcia to change the tone of the talk about what has been a trying year is to continue to let his play do all the talking at the Deutsche Bank Championship.