SOUTHPORT, England -- Sergio Garcia's opening-72 wasn't perfect, but all things considered, it was enough to slightly strengthen his position as the championship favorite.
Garcia is a truly exceptional ball striker, and though he had the advantage of playing Royal Birkdale in the afternoon, the wind remained severe enough that all but the purest contact was punished. Because Garcia combines extraordinary body speed, a near perfect downswing plane and an innate gift for hitting the ball in the center of the club, his shots have a palpable integrity and hold their line in the most unforgiving winds. It's no accident that Garcia has finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven British Opens, and on Thursday his ability to play bad weather links golf was reflected in impressive numbers--11 of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens in regulation.
His putts, however, generally lack the true roll of the gifted putter. And as he has in too many majors, the 28-year old Spaniard committed untimely three-putts and missed all his birdie chances in the 10- to 25-foot range. His only birdie was achieved with a two-putt on the 544-yard par-5 15th. All told, he had 33 putts, and to win he will need to average no more than 30 per round.
Birkdale's greens are relatively flat, the kind that give great putters a chance to run the table. Since 1960, its winners have been Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Ian Baker-Finch and Mark O'Meara--all known in their primes as wizards on the greens--which doesn't bode well for Garcia.
But the wind on Thursday was heavy enough to make green reading guesswork, and prevented the players from keeping their bodies absolutely still during the stroke. In Garcia's group, Ryuji Imada, considered one of the best putters on the PGA Tour, had an erratic day on the greens in shooting 77.
Garcia has been working with putting guru Stan Utley, and after years of switching between left hand low and the belly putter, seems to be reducing putting to its simple essence. "It's just trying to get back to the way I used to putt," Garcia, who used a regular length putter and a conventional grip in the first round, said on Tuesday. "It's making sure that I can move the club nicely back and forth, releasing it, just to make sure that we give it a good roll so the ball has a chance of going in." Two weeks ago while finishing second at the European Open, Garcia he needed only 21 putts in a closing 66 that he called the finest putting round of his life.
But on Thursday, he too often reverted to some bad tendencies. On the par-4 eighth hole, his 15-footer for birdie ended up two feet short and a foot wide right, but rather than acknowledge a poor stroke, Garcia's reaction was to look skyward as if the gods were against him, displaying the same kind of victimhood he exhibited in his post-playoff press conference last year after losing to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie.
Garcia missed another in the same range on the ninth, and then on the par-4 10th, after negotiating a heavy headwind with a perfectly punched 6-iron that never got more than 20 feet high, he guided more than stroked his remaining downhill 18-footer, missing on the left by a full three feet. Garcia then pulled his next one for an extremely annoying bogey.
Perhaps as a result of being upset, he hooked his drive off the 11th into high grass. But to his credit, Garcia dug deep to save par from the hay, and then played flawless tee-to-green golf the rest of the way. Still, he was less than flawless with the putter, three-putting from 50 feet for par after hitting the 572-yard, par-5 17th in two.
Afterward, Garcia chose to emphasize the positive, and focused on the reception he received from the galleries. "I've said it before, to me what's most important here is the people out there. It was unbelievable. We were getting an ovation on every green here. That's why I love this event so much."
If Garcia can use the encouragement to free up his stroke, he knows the roars will get much, much louder.