- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- Sergio Garcia has grown up with the eyes of the world watching his every move. From the jubilant, energetic jaunt down Medinah's 16th fairway as a 19-year-old during the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship to the petulant, selfish spitting incident earlier this year at Doral, his actions have served as fodder for the masses, inspiring more questions than answers about his on-course performance and self-righteous demeanor.
Yes, Sergio Garcia has grown up, all right, but has he matured?
It certainly isn't a query which will yield a solution in one afternoon, but Garcia took another step in growing as both a golfer and perhaps even as a person with what took place at the 136th British Open on Thursday.
First, Sergio the Golfer: Stymied by an opening-round 89 that left him crying in his mother's arms here at Carnoustie Golf Links eight years ago, Garcia improved by a full 24 strokes this time around, shooting a 6-under 65 on Thursday to grab a two-stroke overnight lead.
He did so while brandishing a belly putter for only the second time, helping him to a tie for his lowest round in a major; it's only the second time he's led one of the four big ones after one round. All the while, he looked very much like Sergio Garcia, Ryder Cup superstar, the guy who fist-pumps and high-fives his way over, around and through the top American players every other September.
Now, Sergio the Person: Thoughtful, engaging, insightful. Not exactly terms that have been tossed about in reference to Garcia over the years, but he was each of those at times during a post-round interview session with the media.
"I'm sure at the end of my career I will have learned more from the 89 I shot in '99 than from the 65 that I shot today, because there's a lot more things to think about and there's a lot more things to worry about and to try to figure out," Garcia said just minutes after finishing off a round that included seven birdies and one bogey. "So playing great is always wonderful and winning is great, but you learn from those near misses and those bad rounds that you have once in a while.
"That's when you sit down and think about it and try to figure out what happened and what you could have done better. ... That's when you learn the most."
Much like his idol, fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who retired from competitive golf earlier this week, Garcia will never be accused of writing his own chapter for "How to Win Friends and Influence People," but the fact that he allowed a glimpse into what motivates him to improve as a player speaks volumes about his transformation.
Rather than avoiding thoughts of the 1999 Open -- he followed his opening-round 89 with an 83 the next day -- he has embraced it, speaking openly and honestly about how much it hurt and how much he's taken from it.
"It's not about revenge for me," said Garcia, who played in the final pairing at last year's Open, only to finish T-5. "I just want to play solid. 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. This is a good start. It's definitely what the doctor ordered."
Then again, the doctor isn't quite done with Sergio just yet, either. There's more work to do, both on his game -- he hasn't won in his last 39 PGA Tour starts -- and his attitude, which tends to border on defensive more often than not.
When told by a reporter that no player had ever won a major using a belly putter, Garcia shot back, "You guys are always trying to find something, you know. A European hasn't won in so many years, nobody has won with a belly putter.
"If I played like I play today and I putt like I putted today, maybe that will change soon. I don't care. I really don't. ... It's just about getting the ball in the hole. If I have to use, I don't know, whatever, a plastic bag to get it in the hole, I'll use whatever. So it doesn't matter. It's just stats and stupid little things that you guys like to talk about."
So, yes, though Sergio Garcia, now 27, is fully grown, the maturation process is still in effect, the chip on his shoulder bigger than ever. Perhaps we will see a continuation of that metamorphosis this weekend, as he keeps searching for the initial major victory many thought would have come so long ago.
"I'm still young and I'd love to win one very, very soon," he said. "The only thing I can do is give myself chances and put myself in a winning position. Sometimes I'm sure I'll get through and some others I won't. That's the least that you can do. Hopefully, I'll put myself in that position again this week."
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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