By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia could hardly see the flagstick on his last three holes, yet the Spaniard finished with two birdies to end the Northern Trust Open first round a stroke off the lead on Thursday.
As thick fog rolled across the iconic Riviera Country Club layout, the world number 14 completed a six-under-par 65 with only American Matt Kuchar ahead of him in a high-quality field.
Making his first appearance on the PGA Tour this year, Garcia coolly sank a six-foot birdie putt on his final hole, the par-four ninth, after hitting an exquisite eight-iron approach.
"Obviously I'm very happy with it," the 33-year-old Spaniard told reporters after mixing seven birdies with a lone bogey on a challenging Riviera layout he has always enjoyed playing.
"My first tournament in the United States this year, it was nice to start like that with three birdies. Then I managed to play quite good, not extremely well. I hit my drivers pretty good.
"Overall I managed to hit some nice chips and hit some nice putts here and there, so I'm very pleased with the round over."
Asked when his group had been first affected by the late afternoon fog, Garcia replied: "We were on the seventh tee. And then that marine layer or fog or whatever you want to call it, it came in very quickly.
"I was wondering if we would be able to keep going. In some spots, here and there, it was tough to see the pin and stuff."
Garcia, who finished joint second at European Tour's Qatar Masters last month before tying for 17th at the Dubai Desert Classic two weeks ago, was thankful he and his playing partners had a tailwind over their final three holes.
"As it got colder, you could feel the ball was not going quite as far," said Garcia, who has won eight times on the PGA Tour champion said. "So it obviously made a difference. The good thing was that the last three holes we played, we were playing downwind.
"Nine was down off the left but the other two were pretty much straight downwind, so that kind of made up for it."
Garcia was delighted to start his PGA Tour campaign at a venue where he has finished in the top six twice in his last three appearances, most recently a tie for fourth last year.
"I like the course to start with ... so I guess that helps a lot," he said. "It's the kind of a golf course where, if you play well, you can shoot a decent score, but if you are not on, you can struggle quite a bit.
"So it's a great test to start the year for me, and it's not an easy golf course. Those are the kinds of courses that I enjoy playing."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Peter Rutherford)