Garcia Enters a Tiger’s Den

Special to The Times

If Sergio Garcia seemed the world’s youngest has-been as recently as Thursday morning, by Saturday evening he’d jostled into the 135th British Open’s fine trove of talent.

Already today had promised to gauge whether Tiger Woods’ immaculate knack for keeping leads can endure, and now it will gauge Garcia’s record of Sunday silence.

Together they’ll become the last pair to tee off, Woods the leader at 13 under par with star wattage born of 10 major titles -- each won when he led after 36 holes as he has here -- and Garcia at 12 under par with star wattage belying zero major titles.

Add those to other leaderboard dramas, including three-time major winner and 2002 British Open champion Ernie Els at 12 under, former major contender Chris DiMarco at 12 under and 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk at 11 under, and Royal Liverpool wakes to a Sunday with a forecast calling for feast.


“We love being in this position; it’s where we enjoy it the most,” Garcia said, and the questions for Round 4 start with a logical response.


His eagle from the second fairway, his front-nine 29 and his all-told 65 catapulted him Saturday from a 13-way tie for seventh place into a three-way tie for second. But Sunday goes by a different name, and even at a mere 26, Garcia has built a past of Sundays that didn’t appear enjoyable.

His trips from contention to combustion on Sundays include the 2001 U.S. Open (77), the 2002 U.S. Open (74) and the 2003 British Open (74), and his sterling Sundays like the 66 at the 2004 Masters or the 70 at the 2005 U.S. Open sprouted from the easy bed of non-contention after he had shot third-round 75s.


He promised late Saturday to “go out there and try to do the same things, just enjoy it as much as possible, just try to commit to all my shots if I can,” answering the Sunday question in summer 2006 that nobody imagined would dog him back in the summer of 1999.

That year, at Medinah, Ill., Garcia, at 19, became the youngest player in the PGA Championship since Gene Sarazen in 1921. He went from Spanish rumor known only to serious golf fans to global celebrity with beefy Q rating via a Sunday charge that shaved Woods’ five-shot lead to one. His youthful swagger garnished his birdie at No. 13 with a gaze, a tip of the cap and a point back to Woods at the 13th tee. His eyes-closed six-iron from behind an oak tree at No. 16, replete with sprint and gymnastic leap through the fairway, became his image.

Even as Woods’ nervy eight-foot par putt on No. 17 staved off Garcia on the leaderboard, Garcia’s charisma and promise eclipsed Woods in the aftermath, lending Woods a strange hint of obsolescence at 23.

Garcia, back then: “I said when I turned pro, I wanted to be the No. 1 golfer in the world. So I knew I would be a rival for Tiger.”


From Illinois sun in 1999 to England clouds in 2006, Woods recollected on Saturday from a perch nobody assumed would be this one-sided. He has been No. 1 for hundreds of weeks; Garcia, never.

“He was playing in the group in front of me,” Woods remembered about the 1999 PGA, “so I had a chance to watch and see what he was doing in front of me. He was playing beautifully on that back nine.... That’s awfully impressive to be that young and have a chance to win a major championship. That just doesn’t happen very often in our sport.

“But we could all see that he had the talent to win major championships and it’s just a matter of putting it all together at the right time.”

Putts have led to the prevention, 33 on that 2001 U.S. Open Sunday. Since that 1999 PGA, Garcia has played in 26 majors, never finishing as high as second again, logging four top-five finishes and nine top-10s with seven missed cuts.


He’ll make only his second appearance in a final pairing, his first since the 2002 U.S. Open when Woods outclassed him at Bethpage. After finishing 46th in the Masters, missing the cut at the U.S. Open and with aching in his back, Garcia began the British Open almost as an afterthought, which he saw as advantageous.

When he started out Saturday on a course that baked for weeks in a British heat wave and has hardened with no rain since Wednesday night, Woods’ tee time still sat nine groups and 100 minutes off.

Garcia soon found himself pristinely in the second fairway, then lifted a nine-iron from 167 yards. It smacked down on the front of the green, bounced hard and high once, bounced again and dribbled into the cup.

His front nine would include four more birdies for the first 29 in a British Open since Els in 2002. Eight consecutive pars on the back nine preceded a closing birdie, and Royal Liverpool felt so last century, with Garcia charging at Woods and Woods hanging on.


Woods and playing partner Els grinded to their 71s, Woods lamenting the three back-nine three-putts that prevented any gaping lead, and today promised a Woods-Garcia final pairing that could deepen or alter their images.

If not, they could always wait for next month at the PGA.

At Medinah.




British Open

*--* Player 1st 2nd 3rd Total Par Tiger Woods 67 65 71 203 -13 Sergio Garcia 68 71 65 204 -12 Chris DiMarco 70 65 69 204 -12 Ernie Els 68 65 71 204 -12 Jim Furyk 68 71 66 205 -11 Angel Cabrera 71 68 66 205 -11 Hideto Tanihara 72 68 66 206 -10 M. Calcavecchia 71 68 68 207 -9 Adam Scott 68 69 70 207 -9 Andres Romero 70 70 68 208 -8 Greg Owen 67 73 68 208 -8 Peter Lonard 71 69 68 208 -8 Robert Allenby 69 70 69 208 -8 Jerry Kelly 72 67 69 208 -8 Retief Goosen 70 66 72 208 -8 * Today: Final round, 5 a.m. PDT, Ch 7