Ole conquistador: Garcia shoots back into contention

How do you lay a Tiger trap? Steer clear of the leaderboard until the action hots up at the weekend and then point the Purdey at the links and give the course both barrels. When the third round started you needed binoculars to spot Sergio Garcia in the bigger picture, but yesterday morning he came out with all guns blazing. Well, at least on the front nine.

The Spaniard shook hands with his old Ryder Cup foe Jim Furyk on the first tee and the pair set about shooting up the field. Resuming yesterday morning at five under par, the Spanish-American pairing profited from each other's form. Want to play Royal Liverpool under par? Give the golf consultancy of Garcia & Furyk a ring.

They began conservatively enough, but then got down to business. At the second hole, a par-four of 436 yards, Garcia produced a stroke of magic that was straight out of Tiger Woods's bag. With about 170 yards to the flag, Garcia went at it with a nine-iron, and lo and behold the ball disappeared into the hole.

When the roar of the crowd hit him, Garcia stood in the middle of the fairway, arms aloft. He could have been a conquistador, or even a matador.

With one inspired swing, he advanced from five under for the championship to seven under, and it was like a red rag to a bull. Garcia - unfortunately his Saturday outfit from head to toe was turquoise - had the scent of blood in his nostrils. And the front nine holes at Hoylake are among his favourites.

He prospered going out on the front nine in the second round on Friday and yesterday he did what the Health and Safety Executive have advised everybody not to do - he burnt up the course. Garcia went to the turn in 29, a stroke outside the Open record set by the Englishman Denis Durnian at Royal Birkdale in 1983. Durnian, a former merchant seaman, used to practice by hitting balls off the decks of vessels into whatever ocean he was negotiating.

Garcia might have hit a few into the Mediterranean, but his upbringing was somewhat different to Durnian's. His father, Victor, was the professional at the Mediterraneo Club de Golf in Borriol, where Junior became club champion at the age of 12. El Niño, who had a brilliant amateur career, was identified at a very early age as the natural successor to Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Well, the boy wonder - actually he is now 26 - has come close, but there has been no Havana. At Royal Lytham in 2001 he was joint ninth; at Muirfield the following year he was tied eighth; at Royal St George's in 2003 he was joint 10th; and at St Andrews 12 months ago - where, of course, Woods reclaimed the old silver Claret Jug, he was joint fifth, having entered the final round as a genuine contender. On the Sunday he had a desperately disappointing finish with a 73.

Not for the first time Garcia came up short. Maybe, just maybe, he will give Woods a run for his money today.

"I really had it going," Garcia said. "I gave myself a lot of birdie chances and I would love to have made a couple more putts. I did what I had to do and I've been getting better and better every day."

If that is truly the case, then the climax today could be truly memorable.

When Garcia said he had it going he was not exaggerating. After the waving of the magic wand at the second he conjured four birdies, so by the time he walked off the ninth he had got to 11 under for the tournament and would have been breathing down Woods's neck but for the fact that the American had teed off an hour or so later than the Spaniard.

Garcia's 65, following rounds of 68 and 71, did not contain a single blot, and although the back nine was considerably tougher than the front he finished in style with a birdie four at the 18th: drive, five-iron, two putts from 35 feet and a terrific reception from the hugely impressive audience on the Wirral.

Furyk was not far behind, coming home with a 66, and at 11 under he too is in the thick of the Tiger hunt.

The greens, Garcia said, are getting brown and slick, scorched by the heatwave, but he seems to have their measure. And he seems to have the front nine in his pocket.

"On the second I had 167 yards to the hole and the wind was just off to the left. I cut a nice nine-iron and it looked really good. It's always nice when you see it go in like that."

Almost certainly Woods would have seen it, and the world No 1, who has been ultra-cautious around here, leaving the driver in the bag, knows that there is a gauntlet lying on the tanned fairways of Royal Liverpool. Today he will see it at first hand, for Tiger and Sergio will go mano-a-mano.

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