Will this finally be Garcia's Open?

He shed no tears after first-round 65

Posted: July 20, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland - Eight years ago, Spain's Sergio Garcia, still a teenager, came here for his third British Open, but first as a professional. The week before, he'd had a round of 62 in the Scottish Open. A month later, he'd lose by only one to Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship.

Yet in the opening round, in conditions that would produce an average score of just past the mid-70s, Garcia opened with a triple bogey en route to an 89. Afterward, he put his head on his mother's shoulders and let the tears flow. The following day, he carded an 83 and headed home.

Despite that experience, he became viewed in many precincts as the next Seve Ballesteros. Or at least the one who could push Tiger the hardest. But 8 years later, we're still waiting. Oh, he's had a bunch of top-10s in majors. And he mostly kicks a bunch of American butt in the Ryder Cup every other year. Still, it hasn't happened. Even though he's only 27, the act's getting stale. Sure, he gets the girl. But . . . if he's not whining about a perceived lack of respect, he's missing yet another makable putt in a meaningful spot. And so it's gone.

Sooner or later you figure it has to be his time, because he has too much going for him. Yet, they've said the same thing about Colin Montgomerie. Don't look now, but he just turned 44.

Which brings us to yesterday's first round of the 136th British Open, back at Carnoustie for the first time since '99. It was cold and gray. Perfect summer weather for these parts. And Garcia, playing in a late group, threw up a 6-under-par 65 on the big board. That left him two shots in front of Ireland's Paul McGinley, a frequent Ryder Cup teammate, three ahead of five more, including 18-year-old Irish amateur Rory McIlroy, and, always most pertinent, four clear of another fivesome headlined by Mr. Woods, who has finished first or second in seven of the last 10 majors.

Garcia has teased us before. But maybe this really is the start of a career-turning week.

This was only the fourth time he's broken 70 in the first round of the game's oldest championship. His previous low was a 68, in 2000 at St. Andrews. But he finished 73-76, and tied for 36th, 16 behind Woods. He did shoot a 65 in the third round last July at Royal Liverpool, which put him in the last group on Sunday with Tiger. But he faded with a 73, and lost by seven.

By this point, perhaps not even the talent formerly known as "El Nino" knows for sure.

If nothing else, he already stands 24 better than his previous trip here.

"Most improved, I guess," Garcia said. "I really wasn't thinking about [what happened before]. I mentioned it once, on the first hole to my caddie [following a birdie]. I told him, 'Well, I'm four better than last time.' It's not about revenge for me. I just want to play solid, get some good looks at birdies and not suffer too much. Just put myself in position to do something on Sunday. It's a good start. Definitely what the doctor ordered."

Did we mention that he just started using a belly putter? Or that no European has won a major since Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie?

"You guys are always trying to find something," he said. "I don't care, I really don't. If I play like I played today, maybe I have a chance. It's just a matter of finding a good routine with it. Vijay [Singh] has been telling me for a year or 2 to do it. I just wouldn't listen. Now, it always looks like [the putt's] going in. At the end of the day, it's about getting the ball in the hole. It doesn't matter if you're using a broom. Whatever."

Garcia had only one bogey, at 16. He came right back with his seventh birdie on the next hole.

"I wasn't having the best success out on the practice range," he acknowledged. "I was uncomfortable with the wind. But I hit a good amount of fairways and greens, and on the back nine I started hitting it a little closer. I knew some putts would go in.

"I felt like the course was playable. It [65] was possible, if you hit enough good shots."

And what did his mom say to him this time?

"She said, 'Very well done,' " Garcia said. "I almost went to tears again.

"I'm sure at the end of my career, I'll learn more from the 89 I shot then than the 65 I had today. Playing great is wonderful, but when you have a bad round, you sit down and think about it, figure out what you could have done different. But a little head start is always nice. It's always better than having to come back."

We'll see.

The other prominent story line was McIlroy, who in his first major is tied for third with just-crowned U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, 2005 U.S. Open champ Michael Campbell, Austria's Markus Brier and low American Boo Weekley, who's playing in his first British.

"I'm just trying to learn as much as possible," McIlroy said. "I soaked up the atmosphere and really enjoyed it.

"It was just a chill down the back of my spine with the ovation I got [on 18]. A couple of holes out there I parred felt like bogeys. But to play probably the toughest Open course, to shoot 3-under with no bogeys [the only player without one yesterday], it's pretty good. I don't think a bogey ever ran across my mind. If I play well, I play well. If I don't, I'm sure I'll learn something anyway.

"I was very nervous on the first tee, and for the first couple of holes. Then I sort of got into my stride. I didn't hit a fairway until the fifth. After that it was just really good golf."

Well, there are about 150 guys in the field who would trade places with him.

Another former young gun isn't one of them.

We'll see. *

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