Sergio's Spanish conquest
Garcia inspired by feats of his compatriots as he puts the agony of Carnoustie behind him
Here is how it was supposed to work out. Sergio Garcia would leave Carnoustie after seeing his putt to win the Open roll around the edge and so descend into a spiral of self-doubt, self-loathing and sickening self-pity. The Spaniard would never be the same again and would return to this year's Open a broken man, a shell of that swaggering self, his shot at glory wasted, his destiny rewritten.
Here is how it did work out. Sergio Garcia left Carnoustie after seeing his putt to win the Open roll around the edge and took a day or two raging against the fates. Then he vowed never to be the same again and after winning the Players, the next best thing to a major, he returned to the Open as the bookmakers' favourite to go one better than last year. And so his shot at glory was just four good rounds away and his destiny seemed as inevitable as ever. It is peculiar how things work out. Just ask Tiger.
Garcia tried to do so, actually, just after the world No 1 – a man with whom he has never really truly gelled – had his recent knee surgery. "I did call his manager to wish him well but I don't have his number," revealed Garcia. The cynics say he will never have Tiger's number and that is why even if he prevails at Birkdale this week he would, as the golfing cliché now has it, be the champion with an asterix. Garcia almost choked with indignation when it was put to him.
"You know what? To me, it would mean as much," he said. "And if I did have an asterix next my name, I wouldn't care. If I win the Open, I'll still be the Open champion, so it doesn't matter. The Open is better than any of us."
It was a mantra he repeated to himself in the painful hours following last year's play-off defeat by Padraig Harrington. "I flew straight back home to Spain that evening," he recalled. "I didn't really sleep that night. I wasn't feeling great on Monday. I called a couple of my friends and had a nice lunch with them. Then I just walked a little bit on the beach and tried to clear my head. I told myself it was a positive no matter what. Obviously there were some negatives, but I couldn't make it a bad week just because of the way it finished. You know, I had my chances, unfortunately it didn't happen but there is nothing you can do. Well, there is something you can do and that is learn from it and move on. And that's what I did."
What he did was call the putting guru Stan Utley, and soon he was draining them to win at Sawgrass. "My confidence in my short game is greater than it's probably ever been," Garcia said. At last week's European Open he took just 21 putts in his final round and called it "the finest putting display of my career". If the Spaniard can recreate anything approaching that accuracy on the Birkdale greens then many feel there will only be one winner. Garcia included.
"I've always believed I'd win an Open," he said. "And hopefully, I'll do it more than once. I love the Open. I'd say it brings the best out of me. I really enjoy the British crowds – they have always been very good to me. I get energy from them.
"At Hoylake on the Sunday [in 2006], even though I didn't have a chance of winning, when I was on the 16th hole, the cheer I got walking down that fairway... well, my caddie kind of looked at me and said: 'If I didn't know better I'd say you were winning this thing'. You don't get that too often in many other places."
Perhaps that Merseyside crowd were simply feeling sorry for him. After all, Garcia had just been a victim of one of golf's more savage maulings, having gone out in the last group with Tiger. It is not the sort of memory anyone would wish to take back to that part of the world, but Garcia seems strangely impervious. There is a steelier edge now to this supposed brittle soul, and who knows, perhaps that is a by-product of Spain's startling sporting summer. Intriguingly, El Niñohimself is not discounting that theory.
"It's definitely a help," he said. "Any positive thing is a help. I don't know about playing better,but when your country is doing well it obviously makes you feel better, makes you happier. Of course I want to be a part of all that. I've spoken to some of the boys on the football team and I am good friends with Rafa [Nadal]. They tell me it's my turn next."
This backing might prove to be meaningful, because Garcia is a team player at heart. "I need to get some of those good vibes from the Ryder Cup into my stroke-play game," he said. Vibes are important to Garcia. "They affect my game. If I get too focused, that's not the way I feel most comfortable. And I don't loosen up. That's the difference with me in the Ryder Cup and the majors.
"When I have a friend next to me that I can talk to and keep loose with, I relax more. That's one of the reasons I have been pretty successful in Ryder Cups." In the majors, he has been quoted as saying: "I feel lonely, like there is something missing."
Can he at last find that certain something at Birkdale? Well, the course certainly appears to suit, although, as he unashamedly put it: "If I play well, there are not many courses that don't suit me." Nevertheless Garcia finished 28th on the Southport links when the Open was last played there, in 1998.
He was an 18-year-old amateur back then, and but for a lad by the name of Rose his own achievement would have been hailed as remarkable. When this is added to the mix it only serves to make him an even more irresistible dish for Birkdale. Just so long as the ghosts of Carnoustie do not return to haunt him.
"I do still see that putt in my head every once in a while," admitted Garcia. "And sometimes I definitely feel I am an unlucky golfer. But you can't live your life thinking: 'If only'."
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