Commentary

Will Royal Birkdale be Garcia's crowning achievement?

Can Sergio Garcia get that majors monkey off his back? And which Ernie Els will show up at Royal Birkdale? ESPN.com's Jason Sobel poses 18 questions (and gives 18 answers too) heading into the British Open.

Originally Published: July 14, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

The biggest question that has lingered prior to every major championship since the 1997 Masters? That's easy. It's a simple this-or-that, take-your-pick query: "Tiger or the field?"

Sergio Garcia
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesSergio Garcia owns a solid record at the British Open, but a victory hasn't been in the cards ... yet.

With Tiger Woods sidelined due to injuries for the remainder of the season, many other questions have arisen in his absence: Who is this week's British Open favorite? What will the tournament be like without Woods in contention? What should we expect from the other big-name players?

In advance of the festivities at Royal Birkdale, the Weekly 18 examines these questions and more, while offering up answers to each, as well. Oh, and for the record, we're, uh, taking the field this week.

1. Is it finally Sergio's time?

It's been nine years since a precocious 19-year-old named Sergio Garcia was galloping down the fairways at Medinah, scissor-kicking his way to a second-place finish behind winner Woods.

While he's remained one of the golf's elite talents, Garcia is still searching for that elusive first major championship victory.

It's not like he hasn't been close, though, especially at the British Open. Three years ago, he finished with a share of fifth place at St. Andrews; two years ago, he played in the final pairing with Woods, but again ended T-5; and last year, he barely missed a par putt on the final hole of regulation before losing in a playoff to Padraig Harrington.

"I'm playing against a lot of guys out there," he said after the loss. "More than the field."

While calling out the golf gods could result in an eternity on the Bad Karma list, Garcia is playing well enough to reverse the curse. At the recent European Open, where he finished runner-up, Sergio needed only 21 putts during his final-round 66, describing it as "the best putting round I've ever had."

One of the game's top players from tee to green, a faulty flatstick has been Garcia's biggest obstacle over the years. With renewed confidence on the putting surfaces, he might finally be ready to claim a major at the ripe old age of 28.

The answer: Call it a definite maybe. Or a probable possibility. Garcia sort of got the majors monkey off his back with a victory at the Players Championship in May, then punctuated the performance by saying, "I want to thank Tiger for not being here." A repeat performance could lead to a similar speech at Royal Birkdale.

2. What will a major championship be like without Tiger?

For the first time in close to a dozen full years, a major will be contended without the game's top-ranked player in the field. So this is what golf would have looked like if Earl Woods had placed, say, a tennis racquet or a hockey stick in his son's hands back in the summer of '76, huh? We've already gotten a sneak preview at life without Tiger, both at pre-U.S. Open tourneys such as the Players and the Memorial and since then at the Buick Open and AT&T National. And guess what? It looks very much like business as usual, without one very big name dominating the headlines.

The answer: OK, so some player might have to win the Claret Jug by carding an ace on the long par-4 final hole using a bunker rake to match the drama of last month's U.S. Open, but that doesn't mean a tourney without Woods will be one devoid of entertainment. His absence will pave the way for other top players to soak in the limelight for a while -- and perhaps gain the confidence to challenge the 14-time major champ upon his return.

3. Should there be an asterisk?

For this question, we turn things over to Paul Goydos, and one of the more thoughtful quotes in the world of golf: "When you start hearing somebody write about maybe these next two majors need an asterisk, well, then we need to put an asterisk next to all 18 of Jack [Nicklaus'] because Tiger didn't play in any of those." We couldn't agree more. There were major championships pre-Tiger -- the last one he missed was the 1996 PGA Championship -- and there will be many more after he hangs up the spikes for good.

The answer: We're only a year removed from a playoff at Carnoustie where two of the world's best needed extra holes to find a champion -- and neither of them was named Tiger. So save your asterisk for Barry Bonds baseballs. There's no place for one on the Claret Jug.

4. Who is the favorite?

In Woods' absence, the oddsmakers list 2002 champion Ernie Els as the favorite entering the event, followed closely by the likes of Phil Mickelson, Garcia, Justin Rose and Harrington. Really, you could take that quintet and about a dozen others, throw their names into a hat and pick one, and that player might as well be the Open "favorite" going into the week. Then again, if we have to pick just one guy …

The answer: Crazy as it might sound, considering he's competed in 39 previous career majors without ever earning the hardware, Garcia just might be the man to beat -- if there is one -- this time around.

5. Will the Big Easy live up to his nickname?

Els is called the Big Easy, thanks to a powerful yet seemingly effortless swing and an attitude straight out of one of those "never let 'em see you sweat" advertisements. Recently, however, he's more closely resembled the Big Enigma. Since winning the Honda Classic in early March, Els has missed the cut in four of eight starts, including the Masters, but did place T-6 at the Players, T-14 at the U.S. Open and a T-9 at this past weekend's Scottish Open. A recent trip to Birkdale has him optimistic about his chances. "As in previous years with trips to Open Championship courses, I felt like it was a very worthwhile exercise," Els wrote on his Web site.

The answer: Will the real Ernie Els please stand up? If you can figure him out, call us. Please. He could win by 10 or miss the cut by 10, and honestly, neither would shock us anymore.

6. What will Phil do next?

Mickelson is not a British Open kind of guy. He owns one top-10 finish in 15 career starts -- a solo third at Royal Troon in 2004 -- a disappointing résumé if there ever was one. Does it make sense? Not really, other than the fact that he has played overseas very infrequently throughout his career. After all, Open venues require creative shots from the tees and fairways, and a delicate touch around the greens -- both of which are seemingly right in Lefty's wheelhouse.

The answer: We've witnessed it before. Just when we least expect Mickelson to contend, there he is near the top of the leaderboard. Don't be surprised to see it again this week.

7. How will Harrington defend his title?

Moments after defeating Garcia in a playoff at Carnoustie last year, Harrington said, "My goal was always to win more than one major. If I ever crossed that threshold to win one, I wouldn't feel like that was the end of my road. I'll try to win another, rather than feeling that this was the pinnacle." He will enter his title defense with good feelings and better intentions, but his recent results shouldn't have us believing he can go back-to-back. Since finishing T-5 at the Masters, he made six combined starts in the U.S. and Europe, with only one result of 16th or better (a T-4 in June at the Stanford St. Jude Championship), until winning the Irish PGA Championship on Sunday. His victory at that event last year served as a catalyst before his British Open win.

Justin Rose
David Cannon /Getty ImagesAs an amateur in 1998, Justin Rose wowed the crowds at the British Open by holing out a shot for birdie on the 18th hole during the final round. Rose finished tied for fourth place at Royal Birkdale that year.

The answer: Prior to Woods in 2006, no player successfully defended his Open title since Tom Watson in 1983. Harrington is up to the challenge, but it's an awfully difficult task.

8. How will Rose return?

Ten years ago, a kid named Justin Rose concluded his pre-professional career by chipping in for birdie on Birkdale's final hole, to finish in a share of fourth place. He turned pro the next day and struggled for years to regain such worldly status, never once returning to the scene of his greatest amateur success. Now 27, he's become an elite player, the reigning Order of Merit winner and currently is the No. 9 golfer in the world. If there's a short list of contenders, he's certainly on it.

The answer: He has shown a propensity to play very well at times during major championships, but tends to fade either early (at this year's Masters, his first-round share of the lead became a T-36 result) or late (at the 2007 Masters, he was in contention until a double-bogey on the tournament's penultimate hole). Expect this Rose to bloom again before wilting by Sunday afternoon.

9. Who is this year's Rose?

It's not as if Rose has been the only amateur darling in recent Open history. In 2007 at Carnoustie, young Rory McIlroy was just 2 shots off the pace through Round 1, eventually finishing T-42. The reason so many upstarts fare well at this major? Most U.K.-based amateurs play more links golf each year than their professional counterparts, so there's a bit of an advantage to help level the playing field just a bit.

The answer: Sadly, this year's field is almost totally devoid of amateurs. Chris Woods, Rohan Blizard and Tom Sherreard each got in through recent local qualifying, but none is expected to make much of a splash.

10. What will Romero do for an encore?

Andres Romero's nickname is Pigu, which roughly translates as, well, nothing. There is no translation for the moniker. Perhaps we should simply refer to him as Perfect 10, in reference to the number of birdies he made during the 2007 final round at Carnoustie. OK, so maybe it wasn't exactly "perfect" -- after claiming the lead, Romero did double-bogey the 17th hole to eventually finish in solo third place -- but any guy who can post 10 red numbers on his scorecard in one round is worth watching.

The answer: As a total unknown, he finished T-8 in 2006. As a mostly unknown, he finished third in 2007. Now that he's made more of a name for himself -- the Argentine won last season's Deutsche Bank Players Championship of Europe and the Zurich Classic back in March -- Romero might not surprise anyone by making a run on the leaderboard, but that doesn't mean he won't be there for a third straight time.

11. Who will be the easy Ryder?

With double points available this week, someone is going to make a very strong push for automatic inclusion in this year's Ryder Cup, both on the U.S. and European side of things. Don't underestimate how much players are thinking about this, either, whether it's directly or subconsciously. Winning a major is certainly foremost in every competitor's mind, but for those eligible, a chance to make the trip to Valhalla might make for a nice consolation prize.

The answer: Expect at least one top-level European to inch his way closer this week. Currently, past team members Harrington, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Colin Montgomerie are on the outside looking in; that might not be the case come Sunday evening.

12. Will Birkdale bite back?

In 1998, a four-round total of even-par 280 was enough to get Mark O'Meara and Brian Watts into a playoff. Seven years earlier, Ian Baker-Finch won outright with a score that was 8 shots better. What will it take to win this week's contest? That remains a great unknown, but we can let you in on this little secret: It's all about the weather. If the four tournament days are marked by strong, gusting winds -- almost an annual foregone conclusion -- expect scores to soar again.

The answer: For years, the R&A has set up its British Open venues fairly, then allowed the conditions to determine scoring. The fact that other major championship governing bodies are now following suit only proves that they've had it right all along.

13. What will Mother Nature bring?

This week's forecast calls for … ah, forget the forecast. If you think your local weatherman can't get things right, just wait 'til a major championship blows into town. Somehow, the golf gods always ensure the weather is intensified to extremes. If there's supposed to be a breeze, it turns into a hurricane; if there's supposed to be a drizzle, it turns into a downpour; if there's supposed to be heat, it turns into Death Valley at high noon. That goes double -- or maybe triple -- for the Open, where extreme sunshine, uh, won't exactly be the problem this week. If it's not raining sideways and blowing 30 mph, then we must be at the wrong tournament.

The answer: Ten years ago, Round 3 at Birkdale featured severely inclement conditions, as Katsuyoshi Tomori and Costantino Rocca were the only players to shoot even par with no one else better than 2-over for the day. This time around? Let's just say the contestants shouldn't forget to pack their rain gear.

Mark O'Meara
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesMark O'Meara capped a phenomenal season in 1998 with his second major of the year. He beat Brian Watts in a playoff to win the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale.

14. Can O'Meara make the cut?

The last champion at Royal Birkdale -- O'Meara -- outlasted Watts in a playoff, adding a Claret Jug to his green jacket back in that dream season of 1998. But that wasn't his only success on the famed venue. O'Meara also won a Euro Tour event at Birkdale in 1987 and played in the final pairing at the 1991 Open, finishing with a share of third place, 3 shots behind winner Baker-Finch. Marko -- as his buddy Tiger calls him -- now competes full time on the Champions Tour, although, as he admits, he hasn't fared very well this season with only two top-10s in eight appearances.

The answer: Though O'Meara has missed the cut by 2 strokes in each of the year's previous two majors, he's stated that his goal is to reach the weekend at Birkdale. With past experience on his side, expect it to happen.

15. Does course experience really matter?

Any player who made his British Open debut less than 10 years ago has never seen Royal Birkdale in major championship condition, because the course last hosted this tourney in 1998 and before that in 1991. "Guys are saying, 'Have you played there before?'" said Davis Love III, who finished eighth a decade ago. "Well, I've played two." Only 15 of the top 50 finishers from '98 will return for this week's test, and more than three-quarters of the field will be going in cold.

The answer: Prior to the U.S. Open, most experts downplayed players' previous experience at Torrey Pines. What happened? The guy with six career titles at the venue picked up lucky No. 7. So yeah, experience matters. And sometimes it matters a lot.

16. Will there be happy travelers?

Over the years, we've heard myriad stories about British Open competitors flying overseas, but their luggage somehow not completing the trip with them. The result? Golf bags that are delayed or never found altogether, leaving players with a backup set of clubs for one of the year's biggest tournaments. "One guy, Pat Perez, didn't have his clubs for his first round of the British Open [last year]," Jonathan Byrd recently said. "He had to put a set together. A couple of guys didn't get theirs until Wednesday night." This week, there were supposed to be 22 players arriving in England on a chartered flight from the John Deere Classic, which should eliminate much of the consternation for those playing in back-to-back events on different continents.

The answer: The influx of chartered flights and private jets be damned, at least one red-faced player will be huffing and puffing his way around the locker room on Tuesday morning, speaking via phone with some airline employee in hopes of receiving an explanation for his bag's sudden disappearance.

17. Will Perry regret his decision?

With two victories since the start of May, Kenny Perry is perhaps the hottest golfer on the PGA Tour, having risen all the way to the top 20 on the Official World Golf Ranking. And yet, he's chosen to remain stateside this week, honoring a commitment to the opposite-field U.S. Bank Championship. "That just wouldn't look good, in my opinion, to be committed and then just stone them to go play in the British Open," Perry said. "That ain't right. I'm not going to do that."

The answer: Do we agree with the decision? No. But say this much for Perry: Whether he wins in Milwaukee or finishes dead last, he likely won't look back with pangs of regret.

18. Will anyone "pull a Van de Velde?"

There are heartaches, there are catastrophes, and then there are Jean Van de Velde-like moments. No one can forget his implausible, incomprehensible final-hole triple bogey at Carnoustie in 1999, but many people don't recall that before being handed the Claret Jug last year, Harrington suffered a similar fate, hitting two balls into the Barry Burn en route to carding a double-bogey. No, there's no water on the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale (unless a player goes WAY left), but the long par-4 features O.B. to the right and three front bunkers guarding the green, meaning trouble could be lurking for a leader looking to close out his round on Sunday afternoon.

The answer: At least one player will play like Van de Velde this week … and that's Van de Velde himself. The Frenchman reached the field through local qualifying at Hillside on July 8.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE GOLF HEADLINES