Sergio Garcia in the hunt and happy again

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Even without Tiger Woods around, Sergio Garcia couldn't avoid reminders of a week to forget at The Players Championship.

The 17th hole is where Garcia last year lost the battle, along with the war of words. After two days of verbal sparring with Woods, the Spaniard put two balls in the water to make quadruple bogey, and he put another in the water on the 18th for good measure.

Garcia already was 4 under on Thursday when he came to the par-3 17th with an island green.

"It did cross my mind. I'm not going to lie to you," Garcia said. "I was trying to be positive. 'It's a new year — let's improve on it.' I pulled it a little bit there, but it was an OK shot. I was able to do much better there, and much better on 18, so I was very happy to see that."

Garcia was six shots better than the last time he played those holes. He wound up with a 5-under 67 and was four shots behind leader Martin Kaymer, a good start for a past champion who has shown he can manage his way around the Stadium Course.

As for those other memories? Garcia has put those behind him. Much like his golf shots, he's looking forward.

Woods won The Players last year in a tournament marked by a weekend of squabbling with Garcia — such public feuds are rare in golf — that ended badly a few weeks later in London when Garcia made a racially insensitive comment about Woods while trying to be funny.

It started in the third round, when Garcia blamed Woods for pulling fairway metal from his bag on a par 5 to stir up the gallery just as Garcia was trying to play his shot. Video doesn't support that sequence of events, but it set off a weekend of bickering — and Woods got the last word by winning.

"I think it's over. I think it's passed," Garcia said. "I didn't think I was a villain, but I think that we've all moved ahead of that. I certainly have. I'm just looking forward to now and hopefully what's coming soon."

Garcia says he is in a happier place, and it shows. He conducted a clinic for kids on Wednesday, and he is at his best in the presence of children. He played beautifully on Thursday, losing momentum with one bogey on his 14th hole, but no less satisfied with a 67.

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