CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) – Sergio Garcia soaked up the scene on a soggy Saturday at the British Open, from his name atop the black-and-gold leaderboard behind the 18th green to an ovation so warm it gave him chills.
It felt like a coronation at Carnoustie, even if it was only a dress rehearsal.
His game has never been better. His odds of winning a major have never been better. This time, he will be in the final group with a three-shot lead and, best of all, without Tiger Woods.
“It definitely doesn’t hurt,” Garcia said. “But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I only depend on myself.”
Garcia closed in on the kind of trophy he has been chasing since he was a teenager, playing close to perfection for a 3-under 68 that gave him command of the British Open. He was three ahead of Steve Stricker, with no one else closer than six shots.
“It’s in his hands now,” Ernie Els said.
Garcia showed no signs of flinching, especially on the final hole. He hit a 5-iron from 220 yards that was so pure he chased after it, screaming out instructions with an intensity that showed he already knew the outcome.
“Oh, be good,” he said. “BE GOOD!”
It hopped onto the green and stopped 12 feet left the flag, and the only disappointment was having to settle for par.
“I wanted to make the putt on 18 just for them, and to hear the roar, that would have been just out of this world,” said Garcia, who was at 9-under 204 and holding the 54-hole lead in a major for the first time.
Stricker might have to match his record round to give Garcia a fight. He ran off three straight birdies at the start Saturday, and was equally impressive with four par saves at the end for a 64, the best score ever at Carnoustie during a British Open.
“It was just one of those rounds where everything kind of went right,” Stricker said. “It was quite a day. It was quite an experience. It was a lot of fun, and it gives myself a chance going into tomorrow.”
Whether anyone else has a chance depends on Garcia.
The 27-year-old Spaniard has held a 54-hole lead nine times in his career, and he has only converted five of them. Two years ago at the Wachovia Championship, he squandered a six-shot lead in the final round and lost in a playoff.
“He’s got a lot of things to think about tonight,” Els said. “I’ve been in that position many times. It’s not an easy sleep.”
Els, a three-time major champion, overcame a triple-bogey 8 on the easiest hole at Carnoustie to shoot a 68, leaving him in the large group at 3-under 210 that included Chris DiMarco (66), Padraig Harrington (68) and K.J. Choi (72).
One guy Garcia won’t have to think about is Woods.
Trying to become the first player in more than 50 years to win the British Open three straight time, Woods beaned a 63-year-old woman in the head. It left her bandaged and bleeding, and Woods queasy at the sight of blood on the links.
He wound up with a 69, leaving him eight shots behind at 1-under 212. Woods has never won a major from behind, and only once has he made up an eight-shot deficit on the final day of any tournament – the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand.
“I’ve got to be playing a little better than I have been, that’s for sure,” Woods said. “But at least I gave myself a chance going into tomorrow. Paul (Lawrie) came from 10 back in ’99. Certainly, you can do it around this golf course.”
Yes, but Lawrie needed a triple bogey from Jean Van de Velde on the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999. The Frenchman was a newcomer to this arena back then.
Garcia has been contending for majors since he was 19, and he looks as though he’s about to finally break through.
“It’s going to be a hard day, but hopefully one to remember,” he said.
For years, Woods has always blocked his path.
Garcia first tried to chase him down in the ’99 PGA Championship at Medinah, where he gouged a shot out of the tree in an amazing duel that ended with Woods holding the trophy, as always.
A year ago, Garcia trailed Woods by one shot at Royal Liverpool and quickly fell too far behind to challenge him. Garcia was four shots behind Woods in the final group at Bethpage Black in the ’02 U.S. Open and never had a chance.
Now he gets to see how what life is like with the lead.
“I’m going to go out there and try to play my own game, just like I’ve been doing every single day, and just believe in myself as much as possible,” Garcia said. “That’s what I did on Thursday, that’s what I did most parts of Friday and that’s what I did today. If I’m in control, the way I’m hitting the ball, it’s right there for the taking. Hopefully, it will be good enough.”
What was supposed to be the nastiest day of the week turned out to be the easiest, perhaps because Royal & Ancient officials set the pins to account for weather that turned out to be light rain and a moderate breeze.
Garcia missed only two shots and escaped with par both times. His approach to the third narrowly avoided the Jockie Burn, and he pitched to 4 feet. On the 17th, he pulled a 4-iron that was headed for deep rough next to a gorse bush, but it struck a photographer behind the left ear and bounced into light rough.
Garcia was shaken up at the sight of the photographer lying on the ground as medics worked on him, but he lofted a beautiful chip that stopped 3 feet from the hole. He finished with a 2-iron into the fairway, a 5-iron to the green.
He couldn’t help but notice his name atop the leaderboard for the third straight day, and the ovation was more chilling than the weather.
“I got goose bumps at how they were standing up and cheering,” he said.
Stricker, who lost his PGA Tour card two years ago, is no stranger to contention. He went head-to-head with Vijay Singh at Sahalee in the 1998 PGA Championship, a duel that turned on the 17th hole in the Fijian’s favor. The 40-year-old from Wisconsin also had a share of the lead on the final day at Oakmont last month until consecutive double bogeys to start the back nine.
Stricker had two other chances this year, tied for the lead at the Wachovia Championship and the AT&T Congressional, but was still unable to pick up his first victory since 2001.
“In one regard I feel very good and very optimistic that I’m going in the right direction,” Stricker said. “But yet, I haven’t finished off some of those tournaments. I’ve just got to keep moving forward.
“Hopefully, one of these times it’s going to pay off.”