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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 July 2007, 19:28 GMT 20:28 UK
Sergio on the brink

By Rob Hodgetts
BBC Sport at Carnoustie

Sergio Garcia
Garcia leads by three shots going into the final day at Carnoustie

Sergio Garcia has reached a crossroads at Carnoustie and Sunday's final round of the Open could define his career.

The Spaniard has led the 136th Open Championship from the gun on a course that just eight years ago left him crying on his mother's shoulder.

Victory would cement the 27-year-old's reputation as one of the best players of his generation and perhaps set him on the road to further glories.

Anything less will trowel on another layer of doubt. Talented, exciting, fun - yes. A hard-nosed, professional winner - no.

Not that Garcia sees it that way.

"I'm going to try to play my own game and believe in myself," said Garcia, who demonstrated patience and composure in difficult conditions to fire 68 and establish a three-shot lead on Saturday.

"If I'm in control, and with the way I'm hitting the ball, it's there for the taking. But if somebody shoots another 64 and beats me, I'll say 'congratulations'."

A Garcia victory could inspire a fresh generation of European major winners

The conundrum is this: Garcia is well on the way to becoming a Ryder Cup great after another scintillating performance at the K Club in Ireland last September.

The format inspires him and he is close to overtaking Colin Montgomerie as the European team's heartbeat. But it is his inability to close out the biggest individual events that threatens to undermine his status in the game.

At Carnoustie in 1999, the 19-year-old Garcia was supposed to lay down the gauntlet for a career duel with Tiger Woods.

The British Amateur champion, and low amateur in that year's Masters, was already being talked about as the successor to his illustrious countryman Severiano Ballesteros.

But in his first major as a professional, after turning to the paid ranks three months earlier, he amassed rounds of 89 and 83 on the infamous "Carnasty" set-up to miss the cut.

Sergio Garcia and his mum in 1999
Sergio Garcia is comforted by his mother after disaster in 1999

Garcia made amends by finishing second by a single stroke to Woods a few weeks later at the USPGA at Medinah, and in the process caught the world's attention with a wonder shot from behind a tree followed by a youthful chase down the fairway.

But as Woods went on to add another 10 major titles - he clinched his first major at the Masters in 1997 - Garcia struggled to maintain the rivalry.

He won plenty of times around the world, and like many players, squandered other opportunities.

He arrived at Hoylake for last year's Open still without a major victory, despite a ranking in the world's top 10 and with 10 top-10 finishes in majors, including four top fives.

But on the back of a fifth at the previous year's Open at St Andrews, he took to the Wirral links and fired a stunning third-round 65 to put him in Sunday's final group alongside Woods.

Garcia had been in the final round of a major with Woods before, but buckled at Bethpage in the 2002 US Open. Here, then, was a golden opportunity to bury the demons and reignite their battle.

Garcia opted for an all-lemon outfit for the appointment, but the experience turned sour when his one-shot deficit became a five-shot gap in a little over an hour of play after bogeys at the 2nd and 3rd and a Woods eagle at the 5th.

606: DEBATE
SMC

Garcia was crushed, his putter went cold, and he limped home in another fifth place.

The following month he came third behind Woods and Shaun Micheel at the USPGA but he missed the cut in this year's Masters and US Open. He has also not won since a victory apiece in Europe and America in 2005.

So when Garcia took the lead after the first round on Thursday, there were plenty of watchers who thought it was a matter of when, not if, he would slide back down.

That Garcia is still there three days later suggests his past trials have only served to make him stronger and have carried him to the brink.

Garcia will have Saturday night to ponder his destiny. This time, Woods is eight shots behind and his closest challenger, America's Steve Stricker, three adrift.

Depending which path he takes, Garcia could spend most of Sunday lapping up the undoubted adoration of the Open crowds. And to be fair, the feeling is mutual.

"The British crowds, in this case the Scottish crowds, have always been amazing to me," he said.

"I guess I've given them a couple of things to cheer about and they've always supported me like one of their own. I just hope I can keep doing good and finish well tomorrow to give them something to cheer for."

And just as he is Europe's talisman in the Ryder Cup, so a Garcia victory in the Open could inspire a fresh generation of European major winners.

SEE ALSO
Open Diary
21 Jul 07 |  Golf
The Open day three photos
21 Jul 07 |  Golf


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