- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — El Nino indeed.

Through three days and 54 holes of sublime play at Carnoustie, Sergio Garcia almost convinced the golf world he was all grown up, a man ready to be more than just a major also-ran.

Twenty-two holes under the Sunday stress of the 136th British Open yesterday didn’t change that impression. But the 20 minutes that followed Garcia’s playoff loss to Padraig Harrington certainly did.

Technically speaking, Garcia’s golf game isn’t the problem. Sure, his closing 73 obviously wasn’t up to the superb standard he had established throughout the week. There’s no way to dismiss the fact the 27-year-old Spaniard was the only player to finish in the top seven at Carnoustie who didn’t better par on the Angus Monster yesterday.

Sure, the guy who caught him came from six strokes back at the start of the day.

And it’s undeniable that he cracked in the moment, posting a 72nd-hole bogey when all he needed was a par to hoist the claret jug.

But any serious golfer who watched the fascinating finale drama knows the reality of Garcia’s final-round failure wasn’t quite so simple — or indicting.

Attempting to carry the millstone that is a major lead from wire-to-wire is a nasty emotional burden only one guy in the game has proved he can handle. When the pacesetter isn’t named Woods, the rest of the field tends to draft on the leader, conserve its psychological energy and push one man past the drained rabbit on Sunday. That was Harrington’s formula, and it’s nothing new.

Who was the last guy not named Tiger to go wire-to-wire in a major? The answer, surprisingly, is Hal Sutton at the 1983 PGA Championship. In the interim, six times guys not named Woods have been leading on their lonesome after each of the first three rounds at a major — T.C. Chen (1985 U.S. Open), Greg Norman (1986 PGA), Gil Morgan (1992 U.S. Open), Payne Stewart (1998 U.S. Open), Norman (1996 Masters) and Garcia (2007 British Open). Notice a pattern there? They all ran out of juice on Sunday, sometimes in horrifying fashion.

“Definitely,” Garcia said when asked whether he felt the wire-to-wire strain. “If you’re trying to win an Open Championship and you’re leading and you’re not nervous, then you must be dead.”

A Garcia apologist might also point out the Spaniard rallied after his ugly start, following his three-bogey backslide (Nos. 5, 7 and 8, plus a point-blank birdie miss on No. 6) by charging back rather than folding. Garcia hit the green in regulation on 10 of the last 14 holes he played yesterday (including the playoff) and posted birdies on Nos. 13 and 14 to answer Harrington’s spurt to the front.

And those who label him a choke artist must have been watching a different tournament. On the final four holes of regulation and in overtime, only one of which wasn’t played over Carnoustie’s merciless four-hole finish, Garcia painted the lip on seven putts, touching the edge of the cup on four birdie putts and three potential par saves. Even more amazingly, every one of the those misses came on the high side, or pro side, of the hole.

His par putt to win on the 72nd hole was typical. Garcia hit his line from eight feet. He made a bold stroke with his belly putter. But he simply played a centimeter too much break as the ball wobbled tantalizingly around the cup.

Garcia’s golf wasn’t the problem. He played like a man. But again, his attitude was a problem. He reacted to the hard-luck defeat like a child.

“I’m thrilled. I’m the happiest man in the world,” Garcia said sarcastically to open his postround interview. “I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot 1 over.”

Garcia entered the media center a hard-luck player deserving golf’s pity and left it a self-pitying whiner deserving yet another hard look.

“It’s funny how some guys hit the pin, and it goes in. Or they hit the pin, and it goes to a foot. Mine hits the pin, and it goes 20 feet away,” Garcia said, bemoaning the 3-iron that hit the pin in the playoff and caromed to 20 feet.

Garcia blamed the group in front of him for playing too slow while he stood in the fairway on the 72nd hole needing only a par to win the tournament. He blamed the maintenance staff for taking too long to rake the bunkers on the 18th while he hovered over that 3-iron approach. The same bunkers, consequently, that he found and in which he drew a perfect lie. And finally, and most pathetically, he seemed to blame the golf gods.

“I don’t know how I manage to do these things,” Garcia said. “I guess it’s not news in my life. … I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than just the field. … You know what’s the saddest thing about it? It’s not the first time [I’ve been unlucky]. It’s not the first time.”

Actually, the saddest thing about it is that with such a spoiled-sport, put-upon attitude, it probably won’t be the last time, either.

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