By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Sergio Garcia will not compete in the final Masters tune-up event in a bid to avoid potential COVID-19 exposure with fans ahead of the year's first major, the former champion said on Thursday.
Garcia, who withdrew from last November's Masters after testing positive for the virus days before the tournament began, said it is great to see fans returning to PGA Tour events but to avoid risk he felt it was best to sit out the April 1-4 Texas Open.
"I'm not playing the week before (the Masters), we have fans back, so you know that at any time you might get it from any one of them," Garcia said after carding 65 to grab the early first-round lead at The Players Championship.
"Not that they're trying to give it to you or anything like that, but it might happen."
The PGA Tour recently began welcoming a limited number of spectators at tournaments but The Players Championship, which has long been considered golf's unofficial fifth major, will be the most attended so far this year.
As many as 10,000 fans are expected at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, for each of the tournament's four rounds.
"I would love to get closer to the fans, but there's too much at risk, at stake for us and if we get COVID because of anything, we're the one that pays. We pay the price. No one else does," said Garcia.
"So we have to be very careful as the fans come back into our game, which is great to have them, don't get me wrong."
Garcia, whose 2017 Masters triumph remains the sole major triumph of his career, said he did not get too sick after his positive test but that he passed the virus along to his wife and she got it worse than him.
As a result of missing last year's Masters, which was postponed from its usual April slot because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Garcia's impressive streak of 84 consecutive major starts came to an end.
"It was unfortunate, it was unfortunate for -- I'm not too much of a record kind of guy, but it was nice to have that streak going," said Garcia. "I think I was quite close to catching up with Tom Watson as second most all time."
While the Spaniard was not at Augusta National Golf Club for last year's Masters, he kept a close eye on the tournament and felt it lacked the usual feel that accompanies what is typically the most anticipated event on the golf calendar.
"To be totally honest, if I had to miss any Masters, that probably was the one," said Garcia.
"Obviously playing in November, the Masters is unbelievable, but it didn't have the feel that it has in April, for sure."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)