Turnaround for Garcia and Carnoustie

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sergio Garcia went from sobs to smiles, from his worst score as a professional to his best start ever in a major championship. Thursday at the British Open was quite a turnaround for him and Carnoustie, too.

Eight years after no one broke par in the opening round on a course that became known as “Car-Nasty,” Garcia lit up the rain-softened links for seven birdies and a sparkling par save from the bunker on the 18th hole for a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead over Paul McGinley.

They don’t hand out the claret jug after 18 holes, but Garcia was in line for another award.

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“Most improved,” he said.

He was 24 shots better than his first round in 1999, and that 89 remains his highest score as a pro.

The 83 he shot the next day remains his second-worst score.

As Garcia greeted his mother when he walked off the 18th green on a gray, chilly Thursday afternoon, there was no need to cry on her shoulder. It was the first time he was atop the leaderboard after any round of any major since he shot 66 to lead after the first day of the ’99 PGA Championship when he was 19 years old and playing only his second major as a pro.

Tiger Woods, bidding to become the first player in more than 50 years to win the British Open three straight times, added another signature moment to the majors when he holed a 90-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th that sent him to a 69.

“I was trying to get it up there close, anywhere where I could have an easy second putt,” Woods said. “Lo and behold, it falls in.”

Carnoustie is no cream puff, but it must have felt that way to those who were here in 1999, when the cut was 12 over and the winning score 6-over 290.

The grass is not nearly as high or as thick, the fairways not nearly as narrow. And the biggest change might have been the wind, which was truly nothing more than a wee breeze along the shores of the North Sea.

Garcia led two dozen players who broke par, including 18-year-old amateur Rory McIlroy, the only one in the 156-man field who was bogey-free. He was at 68, along with U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell and Boo Weekley, the country boy from the Florida Panhandle who felt right at home playing links golf for the first time.

But the course still showed a nasty side.

John Daly was atop the leaderboard at 5 under par until he dropped eight shots over the final seven holes, including a triple bogey from a greenside bunker on the par-5 14th hole.

Eight players failed to break 80, including former Players champion Stephen Ames.

But even under drab skies and in temperatures so chilly that Woods wore mittens, there were exciting moments from every corner of Carnoustie, and not the carnival variety with Jean Van de Velde standing knee-deep in the Barry Burn.

Daly holed out from the 12th fairway for eagle. Lee Westwood knocked one in for eagle from the 15th fairway.

Garcia stood out above them all.

Eight years ago, he made only one birdie in 36 holes. He made seven in the first round alone this year.

Whatever memories he stored from 1999 were gone after one hole, when he hit a 9-iron into 8 feet and made the putt. Garcia opened with a triple bogey last time at Carnoustie, and walking toward the second tee Thursday, he told his caddie, “That’s four better than last time.”

“From then on, I didn’t really think about it at all,” Garcia said. “Like I told you at the beginning of the week, it’s not about revenge for me. I just want to play solid. I just want to play a little bit like I did today, give myself good looks at birdies, not suffer too much out there on the course and put myself in a position where I can do something on Sunday.”

Not many suffered Thursday.

K.J. Choi, twice a winner on the PGA Tour in the last two months, Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink were among those at 69, while U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen were in the large group at 70.

Phil Mickelson dropped a shot on the final hole for even-par 71.

Garcia, even though he is only 27, is regarded by some as the best player without a major championship. He has had his chances, finishing in the top five seven times since he turned pro in 1999. But he rarely starts out this well.

His biggest weakness has been putting, and it got so bad that he changed to a belly putter two weeks ago. Even so, it was his ball-striking that carried him at Carnoustie. He made all but one of his birdies from inside 10 feet and reached both par 5s in two.

“More than anything, you can’t imagine the amount of good putts I hit on the front nine that didn’t go in,” he said. “But all of them looked like they were going in, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.”

The putter was a beautiful weapon for Woods, at least on one hole.

So were some television cables.

Woods put his name atop the leaderboard by reaching the 578-yard sixth hole, which played downwind, with a 7-iron and making eagle with a 20-foot putt. His round was starting to get away with bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes and a skulled chip on the par-5 14th that cost him an easy birdie.

But he played the three tough closing holes in 1 under, thanks to a putt that he only wanted to get close.

His caddie, Steve Williams, was tending the flag as he watched the ball climb a steep ridge and track toward the hole. Williams raised his index finger when the ball was still 5 feet away, and Woods dropped his putter in surprise when it disappeared.

“You’ve got basically four really tough holes coming in,” he said. “And I played 1 under, so that was a huge bonus.”

Also helping was a peculiar ruling by the rules official in his group. Woods pulled his tee shot into thick rough along the ropes left of the 10th fairway, the ball resting on some television cables. In almost every case, the player moves the cables and replaces the ball if it moves.

Not this time. Royal & Ancient official Alan Holmes gave Woods a free drop one club length away, where the grass was trampled and the lie significantly improved.

Holmes said the cables were fixed. But former European Tour player Mark Roe, working for the BBC, went over and moved the cables some 3 feet after Woods hit his shot.

Woods wound up making par with a nifty chip over the edge of a bunker and an 8-foot putt. Had he played his ball from the thicker grass, he might not have been able to get so close to the green.

“I’ve never seen a ruling like that,” Woods said. “I thought they should have been able to move those.”

It was strange, to be sure, but everything at Carnoustie seemed that way.

The two dozen scores under par. The absence of punishing wind. And Garcia atop the leaderboard in a major.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)