Brian Viner: Garcia stuck on familiar road of early promise then late agony

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Sergio Garcia, the dashing young gun who must feel that he is too good to end up like some bit character in a cheap novel called In The Shadow of the Tiger, came out with all guns blazing yesterday, with birdies on the first hole and then the fifth and seventh to reach the turn in 32, having narrowly missed birdie chances on the sixth and eighth.

Garcia in that kind of form is an irresistible spectacle, and word of his charge spread across these venerable links like the wildfire that mercifully didn't. However, he could not sustain it, and the cack-handed putting stroke that had served him so well on the front nine, began to look less cack-handed than ham-fisted. He bogeyed the 12th and 13th and came home in a disappointing 39 for a one-under par 71, leaving him at five-under and in need of some serious fireworks today.

The tasty three-ball that also included the big-hitting Englishman Paul Casey and the ever-popular Fred Couples started out at around the time that Tiger Woods was charming the socks off everyone at his press conference, explaining how flattered he felt to have been compared - albeit by Nick Faldo, not his favourite person - with Bjorn Borg. "I watch tennis all the time," said Woods. "I was a huge Sampras fan and now obviously I'm a huge Federer fan."

Coincidentally, it was Couples, at Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago, who compared Federer with Woods. And yet, in terms of the seemingly effortless grace with which Federer hits a tennis ball, maybe Couples himself is his closest equivalent on the golf course. That languid swing is a thing of beauty and, even on the rare occasions that it propels the ball in the wrong direction, as it did on the short 13th, he somehow manages to look exasperated in an unruffled way.

But the wonderful swing, alas, did not serve Couples at all well yesterday. After an opening 70 - and with his back giving him problems judging by a series of interesting stretches that caused some slightly unseemly excitement in one middle-aged female spectator - he slumped to a 77 to miss the cut comprehensively.

While Couples makes the golf swing look easy, Garcia (another who has taken a passing interest in tennis, having squired Martina Hingis for a while) does not. The 26-year-old is slim almost to the point of slightness but generates his enormous power off the tee with an extraordinary show of what in golfing jargon is known as torque, that pivot of the hips. He is a one-man torque show.

Like so many Spanish players, he is also a magician on and around the greens, yet it was his short game that let him down on the back nine. "C'mon Sergio lad," went up the cry from a gaggle of sunburnt Scousers after he had three-putted the 12th. They offered similar encouragement to Couples. "Go 'ead, Freddie lad." Casey, who unlike his playing partners is not universally known by his first name, can hardly have felt like the only man playing at home. And on his 29th birthday, too.

Still, he worked hard, and matched Garcia by reaching the turn in 32. However, he faded too, struggling home in 38. With a European contingent of unprecedented strength, this was meant to be the championship to end Europe's miserable winless run in the majors and Garcia and Casey seemed like two of the likeliest challengers. But with Woods and Ernie Els lording it at the top of the leaderboard, the Europeans will have their work cut out this weekend.

As for Garcia, one wonders whether he is destined, once Colin Montgomerie has stomped off the stage for the last time, to be dubbed "the greatest player never to win a major". It's still far to early to lumber him with that tag, of course. He will have lots more opportunities to make an impact. And yet it's not unfair to say that he has failed to realise his early promise, a promise that once seemed as abundant as that of Woods. Garcia was playing golf at the age of three, won his club championship at 12 and was a scratch player at 13.

In a way, his round yesterday encapsulated his career: effervescent early form promising mighty things, which were never quite delivered. Moreover, the player who conjured some marvellous chips and putts on the first 10 holes, including one superb shot from a hollow beside the 10th green that lipped out, hardly seemed like the same fellow who hit an absolute shocker when just short of the 16th green in two. Maybe he tries too hard. Ernie Els told me recently that the tournaments he has blown have been down to an excess of effort. But then, it doesn't seem likely that the Tiger will be caught by anyone not giving his all.