- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND (AP) - Sergio Garcia has always attracted a large gallery.

Even during his two practice rounds at his first British Open, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1996, when he was a precocious 16-year-old amateur.

But they also may have been drawn to the man he was playing with _ Seve Ballesteros.

“We had a great time,” Garcia recalled. “I remember the energy that the people gave to him and how excited everyone was. Obviously, I was one of them.

“But I was the one fortunate enough to be walking inside the ropes. It was something unique.”

Ballesteros died in May last year following a three-year battle with a brain tumor. But his memory lives on, nowhere more so than at Lytham.

It was on the Lancashire links where the Spaniard won his first major, in 1979 when he was helped to victory by his famous shot from beside a parked car to the right of the 16th green. He went on to win the British Open there again nine years later, ensuring his name will forever be synonymous with Lytham.

“There’s no doubt that it’s special here because of Seve,” Garcia said. “For me, it’s even more so because my first Open was here.”

Garcia missed the cut in 1996 but was considered from that week on as one to watch, his swashbuckling style quickly establishing him as a crowd pleaser.

Sixteen years on, his exuberance may not be what it was, but spectators still flock to watch him. They were out in force on Wednesday during his practice round with Lee Westwood.

The pair doesn’t just have popularity in common _ they have both famously failed to win a major after a series of near misses.

Garcia lost in a playoff to Ireland’s Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007, having missed a putt for victory at the 72nd hole. He has also been runner-up twice at the U.S. PGA Championship, in 1999 after a last-day shootout with Tiger Woods and then in 2008 when he again was overtaken during the final round by Harrington.

As with Darren Clarke last year, there would be no more popular winner at a British Open than Garcia.

“I hope I can,” he said. “Obviously I have to play well. I love this championship, everyone knows that. It’s my favorite so I’d like to do well and have a chance. We’ll see how I feel throughout the week.”

Garcia’s ball-striking abilities and accuracy off the tee will be important on an unforgiving course such as Lytham, making him similar to Westwood in that respect. Like Westwood, he can also struggle with the putter, but if he finds his range on the greens, the rest of the field had better watch out.

Perhaps he’s gotten over a mental slump. After the Masters in April, when he tied for 12th, he said: “I’m not good enough _ in 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

He has placed in the top 12 in four of his last six majors, suggesting the quality is clearly still there in a player who has nine top-five finishes in total.

“If I’m playing well, then this course will suit me,” said Garcia, who placed ninth here in 2001. “There’s not a lot of room to miss out here. The rough is very thick _ the times you miss, you have to get lucky.”

Luck, along with reproducing some of Ballesteros’ old magic, could help him end his major drought.

During his round Wednesday, Garcia went way right at No. 16 with a sloppy approach shot. It wasn’t too far from the spot Ballesteros engineered his miracle chip in 1979.

Did he think of the legendary Spaniard then?

“No,” he said, “there were more thoughts of, `Jeez, hit it further left.’”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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