- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

SAN DIEGO | Beware the U.S. Open’s third man.

While the power pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson is getting the attention, the hottest player in the field at Torrey Pines lurks on the opposite end of the draw.

With his putting struggles seemingly behind him and his confidence cresting on the heels of a signature victory, Sergio Garcia finally looks primed to author his major breakthrough.

“Winning the Players is always something huge,” the 28-year-old Spaniard said of last month’s victory at TPC at Sawgrass, a triumph that trumped his conquest at the 2002 Mercedes as the jewel on his resume. “That gives you a lot of confidence, winning on a tough golf course against probably the deepest field in golf all year.

“It was a great victory. And I had a good week last week, too, [finishing tied for fourth at the St. Jude Classic]. I’m looking forward to keeping that momentum going and hopefully giving myself a good chance this weekend.”

When play begins Thursday on the 7,643-yard, par-71 layout along the Pacific Ocean, pure power and sublime ball-striking will top the list of Torrey Pines prerequisites, and Garcia has both.

Measuring 379 yards longer than any previous Open venue, the South Course is an absolute beast. And even if the USGA decides to move the tees up on Nos. 3 and 14 on one or more days, the numbers on the scorecard don’t do justice to the layout’s effective length.

Often shrouded in a seaside mist, Torrey Pines features heavy air and soft turf conditions. Throw in the layout’s sea-level altitude and this week’s effective length is probably pushing 7,800 yards.

“Actually, this is the longest yardage course we’ve ever played,” Mickelson said earlier this week. “I’ll give you an example. San Diego at sea level in overcast conditions and I hit a 9-iron 135 yards. In Phoenix, where it’s 100 degrees and 1,500 feet, my 9-iron goes 175 yards. So that’s 40 yards on one club. I think that’s kind of extreme. … We’re going to be hitting 3-, 4- and 5-irons into almost every par 4.”

Also, the USGA has left the fairways wide and decided to stick with generously graduated rough so only the wildest teeballs will find spots where the kikuyu is truly deep. And Torrey Pines isn’t really a putter’s paradise, not with its slightly bumpy, relatively large poa annua greens.

That means the recipe for success at Torrey Pines is relatively simple: Drive it long and be able to drop a 5-iron on a dinner plate. Nobody in the field has a better game for that formula than Garcia, perhaps the most accurate big hitter in the game and a long-iron virtuoso.

For years, the one facet of Garcia’s game holding him back was his putting. No more. Thanks to an assist from short-game guru Stan Utley, Garcia has returned to the daunting feel putter who broke onto the golf scene as a 19-year-old at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship.

“My confidence with my short game, it’s much greater than it’s probably ever been,” Garcia said. “For example, last week I played pretty solid all week, but I didn’t play that great on Saturday, and my short game stood up for me.. … It’s been a while since I’ve been able to achieve that, like have a decent score without striking the ball like I normally do.”

As Garcia endeavors to win his first major after a slew of near-misses, perhaps it also aids his cause that most of the event’s focus will fall on the glamour group of Woods, Mickelson and Adam Scott. The three top-ranked players in the world are paired together for pre-weekend play.

But each of the three has a major issue aside from what could easily devolve into two rounds of circus-style scrutiny from galleries and the media.

There is still a question mark surrounding Woods’ recovering left knee. He did nothing to dispel that concern Wednesday, when he skipped playing and simply hit range balls. Woods doesn’t exactly look gimpy, but he didn’t hit a single wood on the practice grounds Wednesday. And there’s unquestionably a certain ginger appearance to his normally ferocious swing.

Like Woods, Scott’s issue is primarily physical; the gifted Aussie has a fractured right pinky finger and briefly considered withdrawing from the event.

Mickelson’s issue could be emotional. A San Diego native who grew up playing his high school matches at Torrey Pines, he committed the cardinal sportsman’s sin of treating this week different from any other tournament. By his own admission, he cleared his schedule of his standard interview and autograph-signing sessions in an attempt to maximize his performance in what he is calling a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” That’s a dangerous addition of self-applied pressure for a player who hasn’t exactly exhibited an assassin’s constitution during his career.

Enter Garcia, a man who finally could find his major sanctuary in a town named after a Spanish mission.

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