Garcia made seven birdies and one bogey.
Thursday, July 19, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) — The British Open wasn't at "Car-Nasty" this time around — especially for Sergio Garcia.

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."

(Click here to see photos from the first round.)

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.

The Spaniard has been in contention at the majors plenty of times, including last year's Open at Royal Liverpool. He played with Woods in the final group on Sunday, only to wilt in a garish yellow outfit, much like a ripened banana left out in the sun.

A final-round 73 dropped him into a tie for fifth — further proof that Garcia has all the shots to contend with Woods but still hasn't learned to finish. Maybe this will be the one.

Woods provided another improbable shot for his majors collection, something to go with his chip-in at the 2005 Masters and the 4-iron he holed out from the fairway at Hoylake a year ago.

(Click here to see photos from Tiger's round.)

At the difficult 16th, Woods' tee shot barely made the front of the green. He was only trying to set up an easy two-putt when he sent the ball rolling toward the cup. It kept going and going — and dropped in.

Woods threw both arms in the air, then shrugged his shoulders as he looked toward caddie Steve Williams.

"I was just trying to get it up there close," said Woods, seeking a fourth Open title overall and 13th major championship in his incessant pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' career record. "Lo and behold, it falls in."

As if Woods doesn't have enough talent, the Royal & Ancient was there to help him along.

When he tugged his tee shot into deep rough left of the 10th fairway, the ball settled on a strand of television cables. Rules official Alan Holmes gave Woods relief within one club length, claiming the cables couldn't be moved. But Mark Roe, a former European tour player now working for the BBC, moved them 3 feet.

The ruling enabled Woods to drop in trampled grass. He hit a long iron to just short of the green, followed with a nifty pitch and saved par with an 8-foot putt.

"I didn't ask for it," Woods insisted. "The guy just said I could."

Garcia was two shots clear of Ireland's Paul McGinley, a Ryder Cup stalwart who has never done much individually but shot 67. McIlroy was among the group another shot back, joined by U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and the guy who won the American title two years ago, Michael Campbell.

Then there's John Daly, whose 1995 British Open victory is one of the highlights of his troubled career.

He briefly surged to the top of the leaderboard by holing out a short wedge for eagle at No. 11. That was followed by a stretch that epitomized his up-and-down life: double-bogey, par, triple-bogey, bogey, bogey, par, bogey. He settled for a 74 and hustled by reporters without talking.

Campbell sank three long birdie putts, then hit a wonderful approach to 3 feet at the tough 17th hole for his final birdie. He's eager to show that his 2005 win at Pinehurst — when he held off Woods on the final day — wasn't a fluke.

"Setting the goal of winning a major was probably a mistake," said Campbell, wearing a hot pink shirt. "I should have said 'majors."'

Going out in the morning, Woods looked as though he was on his way to pop a casserole in the oven. Like several of his competitors, he wore oversized gloves to keep his hands warm between shots in damp, dreary conditions.

Of course, after the searing heat of Royal St. George's in 2003 and the sun-baked fairways of Royal Liverpool last year, this seemed more like a British Open, a Scottish summer in all its glory.

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