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Garcia may not be a bad long shot in British Open

SANDWICH, England – By now, he should have won a few of these, maybe more. When Sergio Garcia first teed it up in the British Open as a teenager there seemed no way his name wouldn’t someday be inscribed on the claret jug.

It might still happen, though by now it seems more hope than destiny. Too many Opens have passed, and too many scars remain for Garcia to fully realize the promise of a time gone by.

The tournament that seems to torment him begins Thursday, and Garcia is lucky to even be in the field. His game and his life had been in such disarray that it took a second-place finish in his last tournament just to get an invite.

Once a player everyone talked about, he’s now an afterthought in an Open loaded with good players younger than him. He doesn’t particularly like the golf course, and he hasn’t won in so long that he’s almost forgotten what it’s like.

But take a look at Garcia bounding around the golf course Wednesday as if he were still a teenager, and you might suddenly be tempted to put a few quid on him at the 33-1 odds local bookmakers are offering.

Apparently there can be something liberating about playing without great expectations.

“I’m going in the right direction,” said Garcia, who was going in such a wrong direction that the only way he made the European Ryder Cup team last year was as its official cheerleader.

Garcia was the one being cheered as he played his way around Royal St. George’s in his final practice round for the Open. For the fans, there was a lot to like about a player who smiled and laughed from the first tee on and was ready with a Sharpie between holes to sign the hats and programs thrust at him.

At one point, Garcia even jogged over to a ball in the bunker, much like a pro soccer player he once hoped to be. Golf seems fun again for a player so down on his game and himself following a breakup with Greg Norman’s daughter last year that he took 10 weeks off without touching a club.

The bitter failures of his past, though, are a constant reminder of the toll this tournament has taken. The major everyone expected him to win one day still eludes him, and it can’t be easy knowing that so many have gotten away.

Playing second banana to Tiger Woods while dressed head-to-toe in yellow in the final round in 2006 was embarrassing. Losing in a playoff to Padraig Harrington the next year when all Garcia had to do was sink one of three makable putts was frustrating.

And complaining afterward that somehow, someone had it out for him eventually proved to be humiliating.

“You only watch the guys that make the putts and get the good breaks,” he told reporters.

Lately, though, it’s been Garcia making the putts and getting the good breaks. He barely got into the U.S. Open, then played solidly to finish in a tie for seventh. He followed that with a playoff loss in the BMW International on the European Tour that qualified him for the British Open, a tournament he hasn’t missed since playing as an amateur in 1999.

Now he’s got another chance, on a course where being able to hit solid and creative shots - a Garcia strength - is more important than being able to make a lot of putts - a weakness despite his move to a claw grip to get his putter to behave better.

“To have been able to qualify for the U.S. Open and play well there and to have also played well in Germany to get to the Open has been important for me,” Garcia said. “But I must continue on the same path.”

That path hasn’t always been smooth for Garcia, who was taunted into overhauling his pre-swing routine when New York fans counted out loud and called him “waggle boy” in the 2003 U.S. Open. Often overlooked, though, is that he has won 20 tournaments worldwide and cashed in $43 million in prize money in his pro career.

Still, unless Garcia wins a major he will be considered an underachiever. He’s only 31, but he’s been a pro for 13 years now and hasn’t won a major during a time when Woods gobbled them up by the handful.

The fix is simple. To be considered one of the best players, he has to win one of the biggest tournaments.

Unfortunately for Garcia, he’s yet to prove he can.