The bridesmaids are fighting over the bouquet again. Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler chased Rory McIlroy down the aisle at Royal Liverpool last year but failed to catch the world No 1. Here at St Andrews this week, one of them is hoping to upgrade on a runners-up position to elope with the Claret Jug.
Garcia has been left standing at the altar before. He watched in horror at Carnoustie in 2007 as his putt to win the Open lipped out of the final hole. He lost the play-off to Padraig Harrington and cried. But the 35-year-old world No 10 revels in this annual links challenge in front of spectators that love him for his Ryder Cup heroics.
Eight top 10s in 18 Opens suggests he still has the game to win despite the hard-luck stories. But does he have the mental fortitude to ride out the bad periods and wait for fortune to shine on him? Does he really believe he can win the Open or is he simply just hoping?
“In the back of my mind, I do believe I’m going to win this event at some point,” Garcia said. “But nothing is for sure. I can have an accident tomorrow and never play in another Open. I really feel as though I have an Open win in me, based on the history I have with this event and things I’ve been able to achieve in the past on this type of course,” he said. “But I don’t have a crystal ball.”
What he does have is the crowd on his side, unlike when he plays in the United States, where he seems to have inherited Colin Montgomerie’s role as the player that drunken Americans most like to heckle. Garcia received a standing ovation for his gallant failed effort to reel in McIlroy last year. If he needs help to get over the hill this time, he knows he has the fans on his side. “I’ve always been very thankful for the way the British crowds have treated me. They’ve always carried me in the palm of their hand,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I love the Open so much.
“To come here and win the Open would be extremely special as it’s at St Andrews – the home of golf – and remembering what Seve [Ballesteros] did here would make it an even more amazing experience,” Garcia added.
Ah yes, Seve. Garcia looked out on to the 18th green of the Old Course from a balcony at the Rusacks Hotel on the eve of the 144th Open Championship and thoughts soon turned to Ballesteros winning in 1984 and sharing his love with the spectators in a series of Fife fist-pumps and a joyous yell.
“I didn’t watch it live, but I’ve seen replays and it’s great seeing him throwing punches this way and that way. Just amazing,” Garcia said.
“The challenge is to give myself a chance, as I did last year when I played well to give myself a possibility of winning. Put it this way, if I could stand here and say I could only win one tournament for the rest of my life, I would obviously choose the Open. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be one at St Andrews – I don’t want to be picky.”
Three players who can challenge Spieth at St Andrews
Three players who can challenge Spieth at St Andrews
1/3 Dustin Johnson (US) 11-1
Bristling at his US Open failure despite protestations to the contrary. Long and straight, the American has got the tools to ruin St Andrews – if his nerve holds
2/3 Branden Grace (SA) 40-1
Grew up playing in the wind at Fancourt in South Africa. Took it to Spieth and Johnson on the last day at the US Open recently. Always up for the fight
3/3 Hideki Matsuyama (Japan) 40-1
The Japanese is a talent universally acclaimed. Flights it high and low, and putts like a dream. Will win a big one at some point, and sooner rather than later?
The form of Fowler, the world No 5 from Jupiter, Florida, could be said to be out of this world. The 26-year-old won the Players Championship in May, the so-called fifth major, and last week he claimed the Scottish Open down the coast at Gullane.
“I wanted to get back over here, get some swings on the links, be in contention and get the juices ready for this week,” Fowler said. “I think we did a good job of that, being able to win.”
Fowler’s pedigree as a future Open champion has been rising but recently he was named as one of the game’s most over-rated players in an anonymous poll of his peers conducted by an American publication. But the Californian, whose orange Sunday outfits make him look like a bin-man, has proved his fellow players are talking rubbish. He credits Tiger Woods’s former coach Butch Harmon with helping him reach the next level, as well as money matches on practice days with gung-ho gambler Phil Mickelson, also a pupil of Harmon.
“Some of it definitely goes back to Tuesday games with Phil, being in situations where you have to step up and make something happen,” he said. So what needs to happen to get to the elite level? “A good start would be to become a major champion,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always dreamed of. The way Jordan [Spieth] has been playing, and what Rory [McIlroy] has been doing, I have some work to do,” he added.
Maybe all it needs is a spot of good luck or belief in fate. Anything to get hold of that Claret Jug. Garcia is channeling Seve, while Fowler has his lucky ball marker. He forgot to pick it up playing a practice round on Tuesday with Miguel Angel Jimenez and the Spaniard pinched it. “I have made a lot of putts with it, so I wanted to get it back,” Fowler said. “I had some cash ready if needed. The coin has worked good; I’m surprised he didn’t keep it. But he’s a good friend and a lot of fun to be around. Luckily, he handed it over.”