Sergio Garcia's tough day at Merion

ARDMORE, Pa. -- On Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open, Sergio Garcia was back in the sanctuary of competition after spending much of the last two weeks answering questions about his now-infamous fried chicken comments.

A U.S. Open golf course has a way of sharpening the focus of even the most distracted player. The 33-year-old Spaniard couldn't bring the controversy to the course if he wanted to negotiate the intricacies of Merion's East Course.

He had wondered a few days earlier if he could overcome this saga to make a serious push this week to earn his first major championship. Now it was time to play golf.

In the quick and jolting fashion that it took a single joke to derail his season and perhaps his career, out-of-bounds tee shots at the 14th and 15th on Thursday cost him an otherwise solid round.

Yet his 3-over 73 was remarkable considering that he shot a 6-over 40 over his opening nine holes. An eagle and three birdies on his inward nine might have saved his tournament.

"I had unfortunately two really bad holes," Garcia said. "But it's the way it is. The U.S. Open doesn't give you much room.

"I guess I was just making my week a little bit tougher, but I tried to battle as much as I could coming in and I was able to shoot a decent score."

He had already made his week tougher with those racially tinged comments. No matter how he played on Thursday, he was going to have to live with the consequences of that mistake.

In the eighth fairway, an official asked Garcia if he wanted a heckler removed from the course.

"No," he said. "That would just make it worse."

All week, Sergio has carried himself like a wounded man, willing to take his scolding professionally. This was no time to get defensive.

"There were a couple of [hecklers] here and there, but I felt the people were very nice for the whole day," Garcia said. "I think that almost all of them were behind me and that was nice to see."

This might have been the most difficult 18 holes of his career. He couldn't blame outside forces, a bad tee time or the poor etiquette of a fellow player. This was all on him and he had to bear the weight alone.

Thursday evening, after his round and before the rains returned, Garcia was making his way to a shuttle van when he met a young woman who gave him the kind of reassuring and consoling hug that you give someone who has been through a very difficult day.

On their way to the van, Garcia ran into a couple of players just beginning their rounds. Garcia's friends around the tour have been quiet on the issue, but it's easy to see that they are concerned about him.

"You all right?" Bo Van Pelt said.

"I'm all right," Garcia said.

It wasn't the best of times, Garcia's voice projected, but he was enduring this period in his life with all the courage he could muster. A tough U.S. Open golf course and the lingering consequences of one bad joke were more than enough work for one day.