SOUTHPORT, England -- In betting parlors and inside the ropes, Sergio Garcia has never had better odds of winning a major.
No one has more top 10s in the British Open this decade than Garcia, who has gone into the final round within four shots of the lead six times in the last seven years. He is considered among the best ball-strikers in golf. He is not lacking imagination or creativity for the variety of shots required on links courses.
And it sure doesnt hurt that Tiger Woods isnt around.
When you dont have the No. 1 player in the world playing here'and obviously, we know how good he is and how well hes done in the majors'it gives you a little bit more of a chance, Garcia said Tuesday. But it doesnt mean that its yours to win.
The British bookmakers believe otherwise.
Woods had season-ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th career major, leaving the British Open up for grabs. Bookies have installed Garcia as the favorite at Royal Birkdale, with odds as low as 8-to-1.
There was a reason for such high hope, even before Woods began to wobble on one leg.
Garcia ended a three-year victory drought in May when he captured The Players Championship in a sudden-death playoff over Paul Goydos, despite taking 18 more putts in regulation. Two weeks ago, he finished strong to finish runner-up at the French Open.
I feel like my game is probably as good as its ever been, he said. I dont feel complete, but I feel like Im closer.
Among majors, no place feels like home more than the British Open.
Garcia has felt the affection of these galleries since he was an 18-year-old amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998, when he tied for 25th. The Spaniard thrives on emotion, and the reception he gets throughout Britain only makes him play better.
Theyve been very good to me, he said. And that always helps.
But he has given them only close calls to celebrate, especially the last two years.
Garcia was one shot behind Woods and played with him in the final group at Royal Liverpool in 2006. But consecutive three-putt bogeys, followed by an eagle from Woods, the Spaniard was five shots behind just five holes into the last round and never caught up.
A year ago was the most devastating of all.
Garcia took a three-shot lead going into the final round at Carnoustie, and despite struggling on the greens, he still had a 10-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to win the claret jug. The putt dipped slightly into the cup before staying out, and Garcia stared at it in disbelief.
Then came a playoff against Padraig Harrington, who made up a six-shot deficit in regulation. Garcia took bogey on the first of four holes in the playoff, had a 3-iron bounced off the pin on the par-3 16th and wound up one shot behind.
Distraught over his misfortune, he blamed everything and everybody but himself.
Sunday night and Monday were a little bit tough, he said. Other than that, you think about the week, you think about everything you did, and you realize that you did the best you could.
Putting remains a problem, despite his work the last six months with putting guru Stan Utley, but there is less demand on the greens at the British Open than other majors because the contours and speed are not as severe as a Masters or U.S. Open.
Garcia is considered among the best players to have never won a major, but perhaps not for long.
The title used to belong to Phil Mickelson, who was far more accomplished before he finally broke through at the 2004 Masters. Mickelson understands the hollow feeling of coming so close, having watched Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open and David Toms in the 2001 PGA Championship make par putts on the final hole to beat him by one shot.
A major championship is very close in his realm, Mickelson said. And the fact that he came close last year in the Open Championship and didnt win, I dont think its something to really worry too much about. I think that his major championship is coming very soon.
Ernie Els, whose six top 10s in the British Open this decade include a victory at Muirfield in 2002, said he wasnt the least bit disappointed that Woods was not at Royal Birkdale. Even so, Els knows as well as anyone that winning a major is never easy.
He was challenged over the final 40 holes at Royal Troon in 2004 before losing to Todd Hamilton. And even in his victory at Muirfield, Els went into a sudden-death overtime after the four-hole playoff to hold off unheralded Thomas Levet.
Els believes the bouncy British Open is where the chances are a little more level, even with Woods in the field. It is the only major played on links courses, and Garcia has been playing on this turf since he was 12.
Take Woods out of the equation, and the odds get better.
Lets face it, Sergio is very much a factor over here, Els said. He feels very comfortable here.
But the Spaniard is not so comfortable that he feels he only has to show up on Thursday. Opportunity abounds this year for Adam Scott or Steve Stricker to win his first major, for Justin Rose to live up to his dynamic debut at Royal Birkdale in 1998 when he tied for fourth as a 17-year-old amateur, or for Vijay Singh to capture a major he figured he would win long ago.
Still, the odds start with Garcia in the first major without Woods since the 1996 PGA Championship.
It doesnt mean that its going to help me, like my chances are going to be better because of that, Garcia said. I still have to perform and give myself a shot at winning the trophy.