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The Players: Sergio Garcia hitting form is good for Europe in Ryder Cup year, says Nick Dougherty

Nick Dougherty

2008 champion Sergio Garcia tops the Players Championship leaderboard after an opening-round 65 at TPC Sawgrass; Rory McIlroy 14 shots off the lead after struggling to a seven-over 79 – watch the second round live on Friday from 11.30am on Sky Sports The Players

Nick Dougherty looks at impressive starts from Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood at The Players, plus tries to explain what went wrong for Rory McIlroy on the opening day at TPC Sawgrass.

This is a Ryder Cup year and you can’t imagine a European side without Sergio in it, not yet. He’s still more than a decent player, as he proved on day one at Sawgrass. You would never bet against him at The Players, a high-profile tournament he has a great record at.

When I spoke to Padraig Harrington in the Middle East earlier this year, he’s banking on Garcia and Paul Casey being in his European team at Whistling Straits. There’s obviously a long way to go yet, but if either are remotely in form in August, they’ll get picked if not already qualified.

We’ve already seen Garcia win on the PGA Tour this season at the Sanderson Farms Championship in October, with the Spaniard also having a couple of decent results on the European Tour with a tied-sixth Dubai and tied-12th in Saudi Arabia.

The confidence is returning for Garcia and he said after his 65 on Thursday that it’s a course that just fits his eye. He has been in contention a number of times outside of his 2008 win, which is a rarity when you look at the history of this event as you don’t see that many consistent performances.

It doesn’t surprise me, bearing in mind how good Sergio is from tee to green, and it’s always great to see him at the top of the leaderboard. Not just for him, but for European golf too.

We saw this with Lee Westwood at Bay Hill last week. You get a little injection of confidence and remind yourself “I can still play this game”. It doesn’t matter if they’re the wrong side of 40. In Lee’s case, he’s closer to 50 and he’s the reigning Race to Dubai champion.

Both have the confidence in their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world, and the longest. Of course, you’ll lose a bit of power as you get older, but Sergio and Lee are still sending it plenty far enough to compete with the elite and both of these guys still have a lot to offer.

More McIlroy struggles

McIlroy spoke pre-tournament about the “two-way misses” that had crept into his game of late. However, during the first round at Sawgrass, all his big misses were left, rather than both directions.

He has always been at his best hitting a soft draw, but he also likes to mix it up and hit a little fade now and then. Working the ball from left to right for him, he feels he can be more passive with his arms, but be really aggressive with his turn at the same time.

He hit a number of pulls where it looked like his hands and arms were going past him, rolling over and causing the ball to head left. He also spoke about this at Bay Hill before he headed to the range, to stop over-rotating the club through impact.

That’s a by-product of hands, arms and body not being in sync, and that’s going to feel bad for a golfer at any level. When you have a weapon as powerful as his and he’s not got it under control, that’s bad news.

If he doesn’t square up the clubface in time, it’s going right. And if he rotates too much, it’s going left. So when he’s stood over the ball not knowing which one is more likely to happen, he’s not sure where to aim!

It’s unusual to miss every shot in the same place, but if it’s consistent, it’s easier to fix than if you’ve got the lefts and the rights in the same round of golf.

McIlroy will work hard on regaining some comfort over the ball in the coming weeks, and we hope he gets it fixed in time for the Masters. For now, if you’re not happy over the ball, you’re going to struggle, especially on a course like Sawgrass.

Watch The Players Championship throughout the week live on Sky Sports’ dedicated channel – Sky Sports The Players. Live coverage continues Friday from 11.30am on Sky Sports Golf.

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