Garcia stumbles over his lines in last dramatic act

The Spaniard let the cup slip from his grasp more than once in a day of high drama. By Richard Williams.

The Spaniard let the cup slip from his grasp more than once in a day of high drama. By Richard Williams.

Halfway down the ninth fairway, a dark-haired young woman stood against the ropes as Sergio García went by, tears welling up in her brown eyes. “Vamos!” she shouted, in a voice hoarse with feeling. This was García’s sister, Mar, and she feared that she had just witnessed her brother’s hopes of his first major championship crumbling in the mini-crisis of three bogeys in the preceding four holes.

It would get better for the García family, and then much, much worse. Two hours later Sergio was one 10ft putt away from the title and from finally fulfilling the destiny so many had predicted for him since he erupted on the scene eight years ago as a teenaged prodigy. One 10ft putt on the 18th green, with a slight break from left to right. It would have brought him home in a total of 72 for the day, eight under par for the tournament and one stroke ahead of Padraig Harrington.

Harrington, too, had held the championship in his hand before seeming to throw it away with two shots into the water on the last hole. So now García, having lifted his third shot out of a greenside bunker, stood over the par putt. Applying the gentlest of touches, he watched the ball turn in towards the left edge of the hole before catching the lip and curling away. Head hanging in disappointment, now he was heading for a play-off with a man who was cuddling his infant son and smiling at the world as he breathed the sweet air of reprieve.

And therein, perhaps, lay the crucial difference between the two men as they fought it out over the extra holes. Relaxed and prepared to embrace his good fortune, Harrington made a swift strike that cut García off at the knees. To recover from a sudden two-shot deficit, after he had already struggled to get himself back within touching distance of victory, was asking too much.

There would be further dramas to come as they completed the four-hole shoot-out, but the short putt that gave victory to the Irishman will have observers asking yet again what it is that prevents Garcia from closing out a major tournament.

At the beginning of the day it had looked so simple. All García had to do was pretend that this was the Ryder Cup, the competition in which he has compiled such a wonderful record against American golfers. Alongside him in the final pairing was Steve Stricker, the epitome of the kind of superior journeymen with which the US team is usually filled, and with whom the Spaniard is accustomed to having his way. This, surely, was something García knew how to cope with. It was also his third appearance in the final pairing on the Sunday of a major tournament, but the first time he had gone into the last day as the leader, and the first time without Tiger Woods sharing the billing and taking the spotlight. At the US Open five years ago, García faded away to finish fourth. Last year at Hoylake, again paired with Woods, he started one stroke behind but finished in a tie for fifth place, trailing the winner by seven shots. Now he was trying to complete a flag-to-flag victory, starting with a three-shot cushion after having led each of the first three rounds. “I’m not going to do anything different,” he promised on the eve of the final round. “The way I’m hitting the ball, it’s right there for the taking.”

The most important thing, he felt, was that he had been “playing smart, playing the right way”, by which he meant not trying to blast the ball into orbit off the tee on every hole but recognising the occasional need to settle for a respectable par and move on. He was also pleased with the way his successful adoption of the belly putter had leant confidence to the other elements of his game. Amid the redoubled pressure of the final round, however, that new feeling of solidity gradually disintegrated.

After an early birdie at the 4th hole had taken him to 10 under par, four shots ahead of Stricker and the rest of the field, an increasing waywardness off the tee prefaced bogeys at the fifth, seventh and eighth holes.

“I definitely struggled a bit on the front nine,” he said. “I was a little bit nervous at the beginning, and it’s understandable. If you’re trying to win an Open championship and you’re leading and you’re not nervous, then you must be dead.”

Those debilitating bogeys coincided with the distant explosions of cheering that signalled successes elsewhere. García knew what was happening, because he always keeps an eye on the leaderboard, but in the end he was unable to preserve the precious advantage with which he had started the day.

And so, once more, he failed to turn his own wonderful gifts and the wholehearted admiration and support of so many of spectators into the hard currency of a major tournament victory.

“I still don’t know how that par putt missed,” he said afterwards, casting his mind back to the moment when the title was within his grasp. “I’m still trying to find an answer to that. I guess it just wasn’t meant to happen.”

When the sharpest pains have receded, however, he will reflect that this was the closest yet.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007