Garcia exorcising his demons

Sergio Garcia is 18 holes away from completing a dream return to Carnoustie - scene of his biggest golfing nightmare eight years ago.

Sergio Garcia is 18 holes away from completing a dream return to Carnoustie - scene of his biggest golfing nightmare eight years ago.

Not even the lowest round ever in an Open at the Scottish links, or being clearly troubled when he injured someone with a wayward shot just as Tiger Woods had done earlier in the day, could knock the 27-year-old Spaniard off course.

American Steve Stricker was the player to post a marvellous seven-under-par 64, one off the lowest round in any major, but he did it from seven strokes back at halfway.

And Garcia was in no mood to lose the grip he had established with his opening 65 on Thursday.

His attempt to become the first European to win a major since Paul Lawrie on the same course in 1999 continued with a three-under 68 and so Garcia, relieved that the predicted storms did not arrive until he had almost finished, goes into the final day nine under and three ahead of Stricker.

Woods, who came with high hopes of becoming the first player since Peter Thomson in 1956 to record a hat-trick of Claret Jugs, is eight adrift and joint 15th after a 69.

Considering he has not had to come from even one behind on the final day for any of his 12 majors, it looks a task beyond even the world number one.

Among those between Woods and Garcia are Ryder Cup partners Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington and England’s Paul Broadhurst, a born-again golfer if ever there was one.

But on three under and joint third they – like Ernie Els, Korean KJ Choi and Americans Chris DiMarco and Stewart Cink – have a massive six shots to make up.

Every one of them will wake up hoping for something akin to 1999 when Lawrie, amazingly, retrieved a 10-shot deficit, three of them when Jean Van de Velde triple-bogeyed the last when three clear.

There is one thing about Carnoustie and it is that it is never over until it is over. But surely there will be no repeat of that.

However, Els, who had to come back from a triple-bogey eight on the sixth for his 68, warned: “Obviously Sergio is going for his first major and he is going to have a lot to think about.

“I’ve been in that position.” Not for as long as Garcia, though. Els won the US Open at 24.

Only four years ago, remember, Thomas Bjorn was three ahead with four to play at Sandwich and could not complete the job.

This is Garcia’s first trip to Carnoustie since that unforgettable – much though he might prefer to – experience when he was just 19, but already the Irish Open champion.

Garcia had horror rounds of 89 and 83 for a 30-over-par aggregate. Not only does that 89 remain the highest round of his professional career, the 83 is his second highest.

A month later he insisted at the US PGA that “it’s history” and he proved he had not suffered any permanent scars by finishing second to Tiger Woods that week.

That was the first of 12 top 10 finishes in majors and a year ago he went out with Woods in the last group at Hoylake, but once again could not match him.

Never has he had such an opportunity as this, though, to break through into the major winners’ enclosure at long last and follow in the footsteps of compatriots Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Ballesteros announced his retirement on Monday and on Tuesday Olazabal pulled out because of a knee injury. Garcia was not quite left on his own to fly the Spanish flag – Miguel Angel Jimenez was joint third at halfway – but maybe he sensed this was his moment to step forward and show in a major the talent he has displayed in all four Ryder Cups he has now played.

Woods, joint 20th at halfway, was looking for better than a 69.

The round included laying out a woman on the sixth when his wild second shot hit her on the head, but there were also four birdies and his fighting qualities enabled him to play the last eight in one under to keep his hopes alive.

“At least I have a chance at it,” said the world number one. “This is a major and you just hang in there and grind it out.

“The forecast was wrong today, but tomorrow it’s supposed to be howling. I have to play a little better, that’s for sure.

“Paul [Lawrie] came back from 10 back, so certainly you can do it on this course.”

Garcia, two ahead both after his first day 65 and his Friday 71, had resumed with a 18-foot putt and then reeled off six pars in a row before a glorious iron to 10 feet gave him another birdie.

A pitch to two feet on the 13th stretched his advantage and although he three-putted the 14th it was for a par five.

The most worrying moment after that cane when he pulled his second to the 17th. It might have gone in the gorse, but instead struck a scoreboard operator who, like the woman Woods had hit, required medical attention.

There was also a slight rules drama over Garcia’s next shot. He took a practice swing in front of the ball, but Royal and Ancient Director of Rules David Rickman looked at a recording and decided it was far enough in front not to affect the shot.

Garcia hit a marvellous chip to two feet and then two mighty irons onto the final green to the cheers of the crowd.

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