Garcia raises a smile before surge is checked

Popular Spaniard rides World Cup momentum to climb up the leaderboard
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The Independent Online

There have been some special moments for Spanish sport of late. Rafael Nadal regained his Wimbledon crown and, of course, last Sunday their footballers conquered the world for the first time. But if you are really looking for miracles, putting a smile back on the face of Sergio Garcia would top the lot. The 30-year-old from Valencia has not been his bubbly self these last 18 months. Too many missed putts will grind down even the cheeriest soul. There has been talk of him not being all there on the practice range and a grumpiness on the course has been obvious for a while.

Not long ago, Garcia was the obvious choice as the best player in the world not to have won a major championship. It is not the happiest tag to have around your neck but there is one thing worse – not being talked about as a major contender at all. Once he was the world No 2. Now he is the world No 44. Earlier in the week, however, he went out for a practice round wearing a Spanish football top. Perhaps the joy is rubbing off on his game. After a couple of 71s to make the cut at two under par, yesterday Garcia summoned a huge effort of will power to haul himself up on to the leaderboard.

After a bogey at the second, Garcia snapped into action by chipping in for an eagle at the fifth. He then birdied the sixth, from 25 feet, and the ninth to be out in 33. A succession of pars followed, which in the windy conditions amounted to fine golf. At five under he crept up the leaderboard as others fell back.

Nadal and Garcia are good friends and the tennis star has been encouraging the golfer. As for the World Cup win, Garcia said: "It was great, so intense. For the country it has been the best thing ever. Everyone has gone ballistic. It is great to see." And just being back at the Open helps. "I love this tournament," he said. "The people are always behind me here. I'm not going through the best time but I wouldn't miss this for the world."

But the crucial intervention, it seems, was a heart-to-heart with his family and friends on Friday night. "I let everything out," he said. "I sometimes get caught up in the moment, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by good people. It was an important day. My attitude was better, I didn't let things bother me and that helped. I need to try and enjoy my golf and, it's what I've always done, but it hasn't been that way of late."

Garcia has not won a tournament since late in 2008. That was the year he also won the Players Championship in the US, the next best thing to a major, and despite the near miss of his play-off loss to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007, he appeared to be on the verge of stepping up to the ultimate level.

But last year his relationship with Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan-Leigh, ended and he admits that a bitterness at life lingered. Over time it seemed to seep into his golf. Never the greatest putter, whenever he found a way to hole out steadily he was a dangerous customer. This was due to the quality of his ball-striking and long game. But an increasing lack of confidence on the greens eventually works back through the bag.

He had lacklustre appearances at the first two majors of the year and missed cuts in tournaments he might have been expected to win, such as those in Madrid and Munich.

Garcia even advised Colin Montgomerie, the European Ryder Cup captain, that he might not worth a wild card for the match against the Americans at Celtic Manor in October. Ever since he electrified the European team at Brookline in 1999, Garcia has been an integral part of the Ryder Cup experience and the thought of him not being around this time may be exercising Monty's little grey cells to distraction.

When your confidence is frail, it is tough to finish things off. Yesterday, after he ran his second shot at the mean 17th on to the 18th tee, Garcia took three to get down. Just when he needed it, a putt from 15 feet would not drop. As is so typical of the game, he faced another putt of a similar length for a birdie at the last to make up the dropped shot.

This one did not go in, either. Garcia's shoulders, as they seem to do automatically, slumped. It was a 70 and at four under he could still make a run today, although he will need help from those ahead and the weather.

"I hope the wind keeps blowing," he said. "I am playing a little better and I felt I played my best in the toughest conditions. Unfortunately, I missed a couple of chances coming home but I am going to go out and have fun tomorrow."

He may not win The Open, but a Garcia having fun again is good news for golf.