- Associated Press - Friday, April 6, 2012

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Sergio Garcia was supposed to shed that “best player never to win a major” label years ago.

Yet here he is, 32 and still searching.

The Spaniard climbed into contention at the Masters on Friday with a 4-under 68 that left him a stroke behind the ageless Fred Couples and Jason Dufner. It’s only his sixth round in the 60s in 14 trips to Augusta National, and third since 2009.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to win. We’ll see,” Garcia said. “I wish I could tell you I’m ready to win, but I really don’t know. So I’m just going to give it my best try, and you know, hopefully that will be good.”

Just 19 when he had a spectacular showdown with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, Garcia was supposed to give Woods a fight for the title of greatest player of their generation. But he’s never been able to live up to his star billing, with an 0-for-53 record in the majors and a psyche perhaps better suited for a therapist’s couch than a major golf championship.

As for his favored status with the fans, which seemed a given when he was a teenager with that catchy “El Nino” nickname, well, he’s put that to the test. He whined about rain and unfairness at Bethpage in `02, and gave a middle-finger salute to the rowdy New York fans who christened him “Waggle Boy.” After falling apart at Carnoustie, he came across as ungracious when he failed to acknowledge winner Padraig Harrington, one of golf’s class acts.

He even spit in the cup after three-putting at Doral.

Asked about the right temperament for golf, Garcia said, “I’ll tell you when I find it. That’s the million dollar question. The right temperament for golf, it doesn’t exist. The guy up top probably has it, but anybody else, I don’t think so.”

That’s not to say he’s been a washout _ far from it. His wins last year at the Castello and Andalucia Masters gave him 10 victories on the European Tour, and he’s got another seven wins on the PGA Tour. He is back up to No. 21 in world rankings after plummeting to No. 85 last year. He’s finished in the top 12 at the last three majors.

While he missed out on last year’s squad, Garcia was undoubtedly a key to Europe’s mastery of the United States in the Ryder Cup all these years. But his days as a phenom are long gone, and he’s still chasing that first major. And Augusta National is as unlikely a place as any for him to end that oh-fer streak.

Of his 17 top-10 finishes in the majors, only two have come at Augusta National, and the last was in 2004. In contention last year after shooting 69-71 in the first two rounds, he blew up Saturday with a 75 and finished tied for 35th.

In the midst of that meltdown, playing partner Angel Cabrera, who won the first of his two major titles a few months shy of his 38th birthday, put an encouraging arm around the younger Garcia and gave him a pep talk.

“He just said, `Just keep going. Don’t worry about it. These things happen. If you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll be fine. You’ll manage to get through one day.’ So it was just a nice talk,” Garcia recalled Friday. “Obviously, at the time it was nice to hear because it wasn’t a great moment for me in that round. But you know, hopefully it won’t happen this year.”

While Couples drew roars from the crowd with his turn-back-the-clock round, Garcia was simply solid. Playing with an infected nail in the middle finger of his left hand that makes it uncomfortable to grip the club, he avoided the big mistakes that have tripped up so many others at Augusta National.

He made only two bogeys, one on No. 9 and another on 18 after getting a mud ball.

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