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Garcia builds early lead at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Sergio Garcia put together his third straight impressive round at The Players Championship. The first two gave him a runner-up finish last year. The 6-under 66 on Thursday was only a great start.

With growing confidence in his balky putting stroke and superb ball-striking that has become his hallmark, Garcia birdied all the par 5s and picked up a bonus birdie with a 50-foot putt on the 14th hole to take the lead on the Stadium Course among early starters.

It was a good step toward ending an 0-for-53 drought on the PGA Tour, the longest of his career.

""At the end of the day, the only thing I can do is keep working on it, keep giving myself chances, and it's going to happen,' Garcia said. ""I feel like I'm getting closer and closer. At least now, I feel like I can do it, and it's just a matter of being able to do it.'

Kenny Perry and Paul Goydos each had a 68 among those who teed off early in a mild breeze on a perfectly conditioned course. The group at 69 included two-time Players champion Steve Elkington, Ian Poulter of England and Heath Slocum.

The biggest surprise might have been Goydos, a short hitter who had never broken 70 in his nine previous appearances. Only a day earlier, Goydos said The Players Championship was such a fair test that ""I don't think anyone walks out there and says, "I can't play this golf course.' Except for me.'

He was beaming Thursday, even if he couldn't explain it.

""First time I broke 70 in my career,' Goydos said. ""Skipping 18 was a good idea, though.'

Goydos could have done without No. 17, the notorious island green, where a solid 8-iron landed near the pin and tumbled over the back of the green and into the water. He made bogey and used that as momentum, for he birdied four of the first five holes on the front.

Phil Mickelson, trying to become the first player in the history of this tournament to successfully defend his title, was flirting with the leaders until a sloppy middle to his round put him at 70.

Coming off consecutive birdies, including a wedge to 4 feet on the 17th, Mickelson failed to reach the 18th green from under a tree in the right rough, then made bogey from 95 yards away in the middle of the fairway on No. 1.

""I feel as though I'm turning 66s into 70s, and I'm going to have to fix that this weekend,' he said. ""I'm going to have to stop letting those shots slide in the middle of the round that are costing me in the end. But I would have taken anything under par starting the day.'

Mickelson won by two shots last year over Garcia, even though the Spaniard was never really in the mix. Garcia was the runner-up when Sean O'Hair put two in the water on the 17th to slide down the leaderboard.

Even so, Garcia finished 67-66, and one year later, nothing has slowed his momentum.

In his 10th year as a pro, Garcia has been an enigma. No other player younger than Tiger Woods has contended so often in the majors and showed so much variety in his game.

But frustration has been setting in over three winless seasons, dating to the old Booz Allen Classic at Congressional, and he recently turned to putting guru Stan Utley for help. This was a major move, for Garcia has relied almost exclusively on his father for help.