'El Nino' in the mood to blow away memory of Carnoustie

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The Independent Online

The answer is usually blowing in the wind but this time it seems to be carried with greater momentum on the force that is "El Niño". In the absence of the Tiger, Sergio Garcia is being installed as a warm favourite for this year's Open.

It is not just that the world No 1 is recuperating from knee surgery in Florida. It is the reign of Spain, with the country's football team winning the European Championship last month and Rafael Nadal conquering Wimbledon a week ago. "I am just trying to keep up with my fellow countrymen," Garcia said.

Twelve months ago he came within a fingernail's width of winning the Open at Carnoustie before losing a play-off to Padraig Harrington. It would have been Garcia's first major. Have the scars healed?

"It's really not that big a deal. There are a lot worse things out there than losing an Open in a play-off. There are a lot more positives than negatives."

Garcia does not need reminding that after three rounds he had the Open by the jugular and on the last day shot 73 to Harrington's 67. It is a figure that haunts him. At St Andrews and Hoylake in 2005 and 2006 respectively, when he was very much in the hunt, he scored 73 in the final round.

Garcia could still have won in regulation play at Carnoustie but his putt for par on the 18th hit the lip of the cup. "Obviously Sunday night and Monday were a little bit tough," he recalled. "Other than that you think about everything you did and you realise you did the best you could. I felt like I hit a great putt to win the Open. Unfortunately it didn't go in and in the play-off I hit some really good putts and they didn't drop. There's nothing else you can do."

There is one thing: take possession of the Claret Jug the year after seeing it slip through your fingers. Despite his last-day Open torments, Garcia may be a worthy favourite. He is certainly talking a good game. "I love this event, everything about it. Also I love the golf courses. We don't get to play on this kind of course too often and we try to enjoy the moment as much as possible.

"And then you have the crowds and the history of the tournament. It's just unbelievable. I think the crowds are definitely the best we get all year, with the knowledge and the respect they have not only for the game but for the players and everything around it."

Garcia first became acquainted with links courses when he was a 14-year-old in a boys' match for Spain against England."I've been fortunate enough to play a lot of links courses," he said. "It's different and it brings out so many different parts of your game. You have to play with a lot of imagination which is always good when you get challenged on the course. On these kind of courses you don't have to just get there and bang it. You have to hit different shots off the tee and I always enjoy that. Hopefully it will work for me."

Then there is Garcia's form, which has been impressive this season. "I obviously feel good with my game. I feel good with myself. I feel like I'm getting better as a player every tournament I compete in. I'm learning more things about myself. Obviously I'm not the only one playing out there. There's a lot of great competitors that are going to have a chance of winning here."

For all the trials and tribulations, the stories of what might have been, Garcia has not felt the need to consult a sports psychologist. "I don't need it, at least at the moment," he said. "I feel like I know what I want to say to myself and things like that. There have been other great sportsmen that haven't used psychologists, like Nadal. I've just got to make sure that I keep doing the right things, that I keep believing in myself, that I have a chance. That's the most important thing for me, to give myself a chance on Sunday."

According to Harrington, Garcia will not have long to wait. "Sergio was under so much pressure to win a major but he's an incredible talent and probably the best ball striker in the game," the Irishman said yesterday. "He's young and he's going to win a major. It's going to happen."

There was, of course, the inevitable rider yesterday. If Garcia finally becomes a major conquistador he would have triumphed without crossing swords with Tiger. "It doesn't matter," he said. "With all due respect the Open is bigger than any of us, even Tiger Woods. And if I never play golf again or Tiger happens to never play golf again, the Open will still be played and that's the most important thing.

"You know, if I manage to win this week, I'm not going to go 'Oh, I won the Open but Tiger wasn't there'. I would still have the Claret Jug."