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Garcia getting a grip on his game

The waggling starts and seemingly doesn't stop. Sergio Garcia is standing over the ball, going through a pre-shot routine that would put most golfers on their psychiatrist's couch. By the time you finish reading this story, he may have struck the ball. Just maybe.

As maddening as Garcia's quirky waggle, grip, re-grip, re-grip, re-grip well, it's been working.

Garcia, 21, has won twice on the PGA Tour in recent weeks, finished second to Tiger Woods at the Memorial and was in contention at the U.S. Open until a final-round 77 knocked him back.

Nonetheless, he came back to win the following week at the Buick Classic, dusting Woods by 10 shots and stamping himself as a contender at this week's British Open.

The 130th Open Championship begins Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England, where Woods will be the defending champion. But Garcia's recent play suggests he could be a challenger.

"I have been improving a lot," Garcia said. "It is going to be very difficult to be the No. 1 player in the world because, you know, Tiger has so many points up there. But I feel like I am getting there. I am going to try to keep winning as much as I can, so hopefully, I will be able to do that."

The Spaniard nearly toppled Woods two years ago at the PGA Championship, where a memorable back-nine duel ensued. Garcia, 19 at the time, forced Woods to make a clutch 8-foot par putt on the 71st hole to hold him off. And a rivalry was born.

Or so we thought. Garcia, who had bounced back from an opening-round 89 at the British Open at Carnoustie, starred on Europe's Ryder Cup team a month after the PGA. With two victories in Europe, he was destined for greatness.

But his rise stalled. Garcia had an indifferent 2000 season and was questioned at every turn about his swing. Before he developed the laborious re-gripping routine, Garcia's movement was viewed as flawed because of a hitch at the top of the backswing, where he more or less re-loads for more power.

When it works, Garcia is a long driver and accurate player. He is fifth in the PGA Tour's total driving statistics and fifth in birdies on par-5s. But conventional wisdom says such a swing won't hold up over time or under duress.

"Sergio does not have a classic action but it works well and he hits the ball a mile," said Butch Harmon, who helped Woods re-work his game for similar reasons.

More than a few observers have suggested that Garcia find a high-profile coach to re-tool his game. Garcia's only instructor has been Victor Garcia, his father and the golf professional at Club de Golf De Mediterraneo in Spain.

Two wins in six events, along with his tie for 12th at the U.S. Open, seemed to put that talk on hold.

"I think everybody who said my swing was bad and I had to change it, they have to eat their words," Garcia said after his Buick victory. "I think it is a pretty good swing. It probably motivated me, yeah.

"More than anything, he (Victor Garcia) didn't deserve that and I wanted to show everybody that I was still a good player."

Few ever doubted that.

"Sergio is as good a driver as Greg Norman in his prime," said Scott Hoch, who finished second to Garcia at the Buick Classic. "Where Tiger would hit an iron, Sergio can hit a driver. Tiger is very good with a driver, but I don't think he is as good as Sergio. Sergio hits his driver in lots of situations where Tiger would hit an iron. He is a tremendous driver of the ball and has a really good touch, too, whether chipping or putting. He hits his irons well.

"He has got all the game right now. Obviously, he is not at Tiger's level, but right now I'd put him in anybody else's level."

Garcia is the first player born in the 1980s to win on the PGA Tour and the second-youngest player since World War II to win two PGA Tour events. (The youngest is Woods.) Garcia is a younger two-time winner than Nicklaus, Mickelson or his idol, Seve Ballesteros.

Of course, he had his hiccup at Southern Hills in the final round of the U.S. Open, where an excellent opportunity got away. He trailed by just one shot after the third round. NBC-TV analyst Johnny Miller couldn't help but notice the endless amount of time Garcia stood over the ball, re-gripping up to 12 or 15 times.

"There is obviously something bothering him," Miller said. "He looks worried."

"I felt I had to do too much and started putting too much pressure on myself," Garcia said.

But he came right back and won the next week.

And he has history on his side at Lytham. It is where Ballesteros won his first Open Championship in 1979, making birdie from a temporary parking lot at the 16th hole as a 22-year-old. Ballesteros won his third Open in 1988 over Nick Price, also at Lytham.

Garcia also played the Open at Lytham in 1996, missing the cut as an amateur.

"I feel like I am ready," Garcia said. "I am hitting the ball better. I am putting better. And I am having better breaks."