CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — It’s all come down to this: Sergio Garcia has a three-shot lead with 18 holes to play in the British Open. So, a three-shot lead is pretty much a lock, wouldn’t you say, Jean Van de Velde?
Oops, that’s right. It slipped my mind for a second that everyone’s favorite Frenchman lost all three shots of his lead on the final hole here in 1999. Wait, it gets worse. Yesterday, for a brief moment, I even forgot the Alamo.
What’s going to happen Sunday at Carnoustie? Well, you can throw out the history book. Sure, Paul Lawrie came from 10 shots back to defeat Van de Velde in a playoff in ’99. But this year’s course is not the ’99 course, which was set up by the Marquis de Sade and his henchmen. It’s not nearly as penal. In fact, it’s downright playable, what with two straight months of rain in the U.K. to soften it and no serious wind so far.
Anybody who’s 10 shots back going into Sunday’s finale can focus on what’s important — making his flight home. But that doesn’t mean it’s a two-man race between Garcia and Stricker. Here are four reasons why: Carnoustie’s 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes. If there’s a finishing stretch in golf any tougher than this one, we don’t want to play it. The 15th is a long, tight par 4. The 16th is a par 3 of a mere 248 yards. The Barry Burn, which made Van de Velde famous, is in play on the 17th and 18th, a manly par 4 that many players couldn’t reach in two during the first two rounds, when it played into a slight wind.
Nobody is going to end with a birdie blitz to win. The leader, however, could easily finish with a bogey barrage or worse. Maybe even a Van de Velde.
My five players who can win:
1. Garcia is the winner. He has played the best golf of anyone in the field, by a mile. He hasn’t made a bogey since the 11th hole on Friday. Tee to green, he has been spectacular. The putter has held Sergio back the last two years, but the new belly putter has helped him quit worrying about the four-footers and unleash his inner ballstriker. When he putts at all, Garcia is the best player in Europe, and the way he’s playing, it’s hard to imagine him shooting worse than one or two over. Of course, that’s what we thought when Greg Norman had a six-shot lead in the 1996 Masters.
It’s Sergio’s tournament to lose. If he shoots just one or two under, he eliminates pretty much everyone but Stricker. But he has a history of coming up just short at the Open; he has been in the top 10 in five of the last six Opens. Last year at Royal Liverpool, playing in the final group with Tiger Woods, he missed putts early and shot 73. (Remember his bright yellow ensemble? It inspired the year’s best tabloid headline: “Sergio: You’ll never be top banana.”)
Can he get it done this time with a new putting stroke? Carnoustie is a ballstriker’s course, and Garcia is the best ballstriker on the board. He didn’t falter at all on Saturday, so I believe he’s going to get the job done Sunday. If it rains, though, not so fast — he doesn’t like the rain.
2. Stricker (six under, three back) It’s a golf axiom that a low round is difficult to follow, and Stricker tied the course record on Saturday. He had a hot putter, and he needed it. He made par saves on the last four holes, including one 40-footer. If it comes down to a putting contest, Stricker has the edge.
He’s been playing well all year and had a chance to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont until he made three double bogeys on the back nine on Sunday. He’s had chances in majors, and chances to win in the last two seasons, but he hasn’t closed the deal. At 40, he’s experienced, and he’s from Wisconsin, so he’s used to playing in a jacket. He’s the only contender who doesn’t need a minor miracle to beat Sergio, and this is Stricker’s best opportunity to win a major. I give him almost a 50 percent chance.
3. Ernie Els (three under, six back) He made an 8 on the par-5 6th Saturday but stayed in the race with five birdies. He’s six shots behind, so he needs Garcia to back up, or he needs to shoot 64, which isn’t going to be easy with Sunday pin placements. He has the length to handle the two par 5s, where he shot himself in the foot Saturday, and where he’ll need birdies or better on Sunday. He’s got a chance, but I don’t like his odds.
4. K.J. Choi (three under, six back) He’s one of golf’s hottest players, coming off wins in the Memorial and the AT&T National, but he’s never been a factor in previous British Opens and he looked out of his element Saturday when he shot 72. He’s not a great wind player, and he’s near the top in part because the Scottish winds haven’t been howling. He’s 36, he’s got major experience and he could surprise me, but I don’t like his odds, either.
5. Padraig Harrington (three under, six back) Harrington, an Irishman, won this year’s Irish Open, which was probably more nerve-racking than the British Open in Scotland. He can go low — maybe you recall his opening 63 at the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club this year, where he finished with a 73 and placed seventh. A win by the likable Harrington would be hugely popular with the fans and his fellow players. If he gets close, the gallery will be on his side. He needs Sergio to back up, and he needs to shoot 65 or 66.
The Rest and You Know Who: Anybody at two or three under would have to go ballistic. Tiger Woods, at one under, needs 61 or 62. In calm conditions, his best has been 69, and he hasn’t really looked like himself. Is he out of it? Hey, you tell him that. I’m not going to. He’s capable of anything, anytime.