Still trying to remove that unwanted title of best player never to win a major, Garcia took advantage of charitable conditions at Carnoustie to shoot a 6-under-par 65 Thursday in the opening round.
Quite an improvement over his last Open appearance at this historic links along the North Sea an 89-83 embarrassment in 1999 that was his worst two rounds as a pro and sent him home before the weekend at 30 over.
"Most improved, I guess," Garcia quipped. "This is a good start. It's definitely what the doctor ordered."
Tiger Woods was right in the thick of things again, sinking an improbable 90-foot putt on his way to a 69 that put him in contention for his third straight Open title. And 18-year-old Rory McIlroy provided a glimpse of the sport's future with a bogey-free 68.
"I'll take a 68," said the teenager from Northern Ireland, the only player to post a bogey-free round, "and I'll take three more to finish."
Carnoustie is considered one of the toughest tests in major championship golf, but it was toned down considerably after humbling the world's best in 1999. That Open left the enduring image of players trying to hack out of waist-high rough and Jean Van de Velde standing barefooted in the Barry Burn, throwing away a three-shot lead at the 72nd hole.
After the early starters went out in bone-chilling rain and the thermometer struggled to reach 50 degrees, it turned out to be a rather lovely day by British Open standards.
The sun poked through the thick, gray clouds in the afternoon, and many players finished up in short sleeves. With the greens softened up by plenty of rain over the past few days and only light breezes rolling in off the sea, the players could attack. It helped, too, that Open officials widened the fairways and shaved down the rough.
Eight years ago, the lowest score through 72 holes was 6 over; Friday's cut will likely be lower than that, unless the weather changes drastically.
Garcia made a birdie at the first hole, quite an improvement on the triple-bogey he started with in '99.
"I looked at (caddie Glenn Murray) and said, 'Well, that's four better than last time,"' said Garcia, who surged to the top of the leaderboard with a stretch of four birdies in five holes after the turn.