SOUTHPORT, England — Sleep didn’t come easy on those first few nights, when Sergio Garcia’s emotions were still raw, when he would replay the last minutes of the 136th British Open at Carnoustie for hours on end. He remembers walking down the 17th fairway, where he spotted Padraig Harrington walking the wrong way toward him from the 18th hole, and he remembers smiling and saying hello.
“What was I thinking?” Garcia says today. “I was thinking. ‘Come on, let’s get playing well, let’s make par here and hopefully make par on the last and see if that’s good enough. Don’t get ahead of yourself.'”
Instead, Garcia bogeyed the last hole, missing a 10-foot putt for the championship, falling over on his belly putter and then falling to Harrington in a playoff.
Garcia, now 28, returns to the British Open at Royal Birkdale this week as a different person in many ways. He has ditched the long putter since last year’s championship, opting for a shorter model he used earlier in his career. He won the Players Championship, the biggest non-major tournament in professional golf. And with Tiger Woods out for the year, Garcia will stand on Birkdale’s first tee as a strong favorite to win his first major.
“With all due respect, the Open is bigger than any of us, even Tiger Woods,” Garcia said when asked if winning the Claret Jug would be diminished without Woods in the field. “And if I happen to never play again or Tiger happens to never play golf again, the Open will still be played. If I manage to win this week, I’m not going to go, ‘Oh, I won the British Open but Tiger wasn’t there.’ I still have the Claret Jug, which is the most important thing.”
Even with the strong resumes of young players like Adam Scott and Anthony Kim, Garcia is most often identified as the best player in golf without a major title. It is a label that has been passed around through the years like a collection plate. Tom Kite had it forever before handing it to Corey Pavin who gave it to Phil Mickelson who handed it to Garcia. (Colin Montgomerie has also spent ample time with the dish in his lap.)
To carry that tag is to shoulder a heavy burden. At every major, the player is asked about his chances to win, why he hasn’t and if he ever will. Mickelson would go from reflective to gloomy to defiant as the major championships flew by and he kept tallying second- and third-place finishes.
Garcia has had similar swings in emotion, most dramatically last year after Carnoustie when he blamed mystical forces, bunker rakers and bad bounces for keeping him from a major.
“Sunday night and Monday were a little big tough,” Garcia said of his initial reaction to losing. “Other than that, you think about the week, you think about everything you did, and you realize that you did the best you could. I felt like I hit a great putt in regulation to win the Open. Unfortunately, it didn’t go in.”
Said Mickelson: “I think a major championship is very close in his realm, and the fact that he came close last year and didn’t win, I don’t think it’s something to worry about too much. I think his major championship is coming very soon.”
It nearly happened a year ago, and Garcia has been doing his best to hold onto the positives from Carnoustie and let go of the bad memories.
It has long been predicted that Garcia would follow in the footsteps of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, two of Spain’s greatest champions, whose shelves boast plenty of major championship trophies. It has already been a big sporting year for Spain, with victories in soccer’s European Championship and Rafael Nadal’s win at Wimbledon.
If Garcia wins the British Open, what would be the biggest sports story in Spain?
“Football,” Garcia said. “In Spain, football is the biggest.”
Between Nadal and Garcia, which victory would come in second place?
“Me,” Garcia said.
This week, though, Garcia only cares about finishing first at Royal Birkdale.