- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Eight years ago, Sergio Garcia crawled off the final green at Carnoustie and wept openly in his mother’s arms after posting an 89 in his first round in a major as a professional.

The Spaniard has undergone some serious changes in the interim. He says he’s six centimeters taller. His putter is twice as long. And he’s absorbed a few more Slam scars. But yesterday, after Garcia exacted his revenge on Carnoustie with an Angus Monster-mocking 65, the 1999 British Open seemed several lifetimes away.

“I almost cried again,” Garcia joked after coming within one stroke of the course record and claiming a two-stroke lead over Ireland’s Paul McGinley after the opening round of the 136th British Open. “I guess I’m most improved. … I’m sure at the end of my career I will have learned more from the 89 I shot in ‘99 than the 65 I shot today. Playing great is always wonderful, and winning is great, but you learn from those near-misses and the bad rounds that you have once in awhile.”

One thing Garcia definitely learned over the last few seasons is that he had to change his putting. Now, few players in the game can lay a beating on fairways and greens like Garcia, a player who has length to spare off the tee and can shape an approach to 10 feet in his sleep. But a poll to determine the worst midrange putters presently in the game might feature Garcia’s name at the top of the list.

In spite of 12 combined victories on the PGA and European Tours since that weepy 1999 debut, the wiry Spaniard has struggled mightily with his putter, particularly in the crucible of major moments. Though Garcia has compiled an impressive four top-five finishes in the last 10 majors, his balky putting has kept him from parlaying any of those strong performances into breakout Slam success.

Finally acting on a tip from Vijay Singh, another classic can’t-putt denizen of golf’s elite pantheon, Garcia has switched to a belly putter. That could be called a desperate move for a 27-year-old; belly putters are usually the last-resort tools of shaky-handed, gray-haired tour veterans. No player has won a major using one. But if yesterday’s 27-putt masterpiece at 7,421-yard, par-71 Carnoustie is any indication, perhaps Garcia finally has found his solution.

“Vijay has been telling me for a year or two to do it, and I haven’t been listening to him,” said Garcia, who made the competitive switch at last week’s Scottish Open. “When I was feeling comfortable with the short putter, I felt really good with it. But with the short putter, it seems to be [extreme] highs and lows. I wanted to be a bit more consistent. At the end of the day, it’s about getting the ball in the hole. It doesn’t matter whether you use a putter or a broom.”

Garcia’s opening salvo came near dusk on a day defined by chilly temperatures and ominous skies but otherwise rather benign conditions. Tiger Woods set the early first-round standard by posting a 69, highlighted by an eagle at the sixth, a 90-foot birdie bomb at the wicked 16th (248 yards, par 3) and a rather dubious ruling at the 10th.

The 31-year-old Woods, who is attempting to become the first threepeat British Open winner since Peter Thomson (1954-56), drove well left on the par-4 10th onto a set of TV cables. Before Woods even asked for a ruling, an official from the R&A; told him the cables had been deemed immovable and he was entitled to a free drop. Woods questioned the ruling but eventually accepted the generous decision, dropping out of ankle-high rough into an area that had been trampled down by the gallery.

Given Carnoustie’s relatively light stand of rough, which doesn’t come close to resembling the jungle that confronted players in 1999, the game’s ubertalented assassin likely would have had little trouble reaching the green (160 yards away) from his original lie. But when Woods afterward made the outrageous assertion that the drop was “a little bit worse, actually,” the frenzied British press screamed favoritism.

“I’ve never seen a ruling like that, but I didn’t ask for it,” said Woods, whose 69 was otherwise rather uneventful. “To shoot 69 in these conditions feels good. Overall, the round was very satisfying.”

And a glance at last night’s leader board was probably equally satisfying for the 12-time major champion. Only two players with majors on their resumes stand between Woods and Garcia — U.S. Open bottle rockets Michael Campbell (68) and Angel Cabrera (68). And perhaps no player in golf causes Woods to drool like Garcia.

No player has been victimized more often by Woods in majors than Garcia. Of the Spaniard’s seven top-five finishes in Slams, six have been in majors claimed by Woods. In the pair’s most recent tangle, Garcia accompanied Woods in the final Sunday pairing at last year’s British Open. One stroke behind Woods, Garcia turned up for the finale at Hoylake looking like a man begging for a beating in head-to-toe neon yellow. Woods obliged, posting a 67 to Garcia’s 73 to sprint away from the Spaniard and the rest of the field.

Golf’s big cat is again stalking at Carnoustie. Only time will tell whether the canary has indeed changed his colors.