The Associated Press
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Sergio Garcia knew right away there would be no crying at Carnoustie this time.
The leaderboard at the British Open already was loaded with rounds under par when Garcia hit
3-iron down the middle of the first fairway. Then his 9-iron settled
8 feet from the cup, and when he rolled that in for birdie, it brought back memories from eight years ago when the worst round of his career began with a triple bogey.
Walking off the green, Garcia turned to his caddie and said, “That’s four better than last time.”
And it only got better — 24 shots better.
Garcia sobbed on his mother’s shoulder when he shot 89 at the place called “Car-Nasty” in 1999. He was all smiles Thursday after a sparkling par save from the bunker on the 18th hole gave him a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead over Paul McGinley, the first time the Spaniard has led after any round of a major since he opened with a 66 at the ’99 PGA Championship.
They don’t hand out the claret jug after 18 holes, but Garcia was in line for another award.
“Most improved,” he said.
He might have to share the honor with Carnoustie.
The links course that was roundly criticized for its grueling conditions for its last British Open presented a far more gentle test in the opening round this time, especially with the rain-softened turf and only a slight breeze off the North Sea.
“The bite in the golf course is gone,” McGinley said.
Tiger Woods, bidding to become the first player in more than 50 years to win the British Open three straight times, added another signature moment to the majors when he holed a 90-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th that sent him to a 69.
“I was trying to get it up there close, anywhere where I could have an easy second putt,” Woods said. “Lo and behold, it falls in.”
Carnoustie is no cream puff, but it must have felt that way to those who were here in 1999, when no one broke par in the first round, the cut was 12 over and the winning score 6-over 290. The grass is not nearly as high or as thick, the fairways not nearly as narrow. And the biggest change might have been the wind, which was truly nothing more than a wee breeze.
Garcia led two dozen players who broke par, including 18-year-old amateur Rory McIlroy, the only one in the 156-man field who was bogey-free. He was at 68, along with U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell and Boo Weekley, the country boy from the Florida Panhandle who felt right at home playing links golf for the first time.
But the course still showed a nasty side.
John Daly was atop the leaderboard at 5 under par until he dropped eight shots over the final seven holes, including a triple bogey from a greenside bunker on the par-5 14th hole.
Eight players failed to break 80, including former Players champion Stephen Ames.
But even under drab skies and in temperatures so chilly that Woods wore mittens, there were exciting moments from every corner of Carnoustie, and not the carnival variety with Jean Van de Velde standing knee-deep in the Barry Burn.
Daly holed out from the 12th fairway for eagle. Lee Westwood knocked one in for eagle from the 15th fairway.
Garcia stood out above them all.
Eight years ago, he made only one birdie in 36 holes. He made seven Thursday.
“Like I told you at the beginning of the week, it’s not about revenge for me. I just want to play solid,” Garcia said. “I just want to play a little bit like I did today, give myself good looks at birdies, not suffer too much out there on the course and put myself in a position where I can do something on Sunday.”
Not many suffered Thursday.
K.J. Choi, twice a winner on the PGA Tour in the last two months, Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink were among those at 69, while U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen were in the large group at 70.
Phil Mickelson dropped a shot on the final hole for even-par 71.
Garcia, even though he is only 27, is regarded by some as the best player without a major championship. He has had his chances, finishing in the top five seven times since turning pro in 1999. But he rarely starts out this well.
His biggest weakness has been putting, and it got so bad that he changed to a belly putter two weeks ago. Even so, it was his ball-striking that carried him at Carnoustie. He made all but one of his birdies from inside 10 feet and reached both par 5s in two.
“More than anything, you can’t imagine the amount of good putts I hit on the front nine that didn’t go in,” he said. “But all of them looked like they were going in, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.”
The putter was a beautiful weapon for Woods, at least on one hole.
So were some television cables.
Woods put his name atop the leaderboard by reaching the 578-yard sixth hole, which played downwind, with a 7-iron and making eagle with a 20-foot putt. His round was starting to get away with bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes and a skulled chip on the par-5 14th that cost him an easy birdie.
But he played the three tough closing holes in 1 under, thanks to a putt that he only wanted to get close.
His caddie, Steve Williams, was tending the flag as he watched the ball climb a steep ridge and track toward the hole. Williams raised his index finger when the ball was still 5 feet away, and Woods dropped his putter in surprise when it disappeared.
“You’ve got basically four really tough holes coming in,” he said. “And I played 1 under, so that was a huge bonus.”
Also helping was a peculiar ruling by the rules official in his group. Woods pulled his tee shot into thick rough along the ropes left of the 10th fairway, the ball resting on some television cables. Usually, the player is allowed to move the cables and replace the ball if it moves.
Not this time. Royal & Ancient official Alan Holmes gave Woods a free drop one club length away, where the grass was trampled and the lie significantly improved.
Holmes said the cables were fixed. But former European Tour player Mark Roe, working for the BBC, went over and moved the cables some 3 feet after Woods hit his shot.
Woods wound up making par with a nifty chip over the edge of a bunker and an 8-foot putt. Had he played his ball from the thicker grass, he might not have been able to get so close to the green.
“I’ve never seen a ruling like that,” Woods said. “I thought they should have been able to move those.”
It was strange, to be sure, but everything at Carnoustie seemed that way.
The two dozen scores under par. The absence of punishing wind. And no tears.
Sergio Garcia 65 (-6)
Paul McGinley 67 (-4)
Michael Campbell 68 (-3)
Markus Brier 68 (-3)
Angel Cabrera 68 (-3)
Rory McIlroy 68 (-3)
Boo Weekley 68 (-3)
Tiger Woods 69 (-2)
Phil Mickelson 71 (E)
Ernie Els 72 (+1)
Vijay Singh 72 (+1)
Ben Curtis 72 (+1)
John Daly 74 (+3)
ON TV: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. (TNT)