CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND — That old beast Carnoustie must've snickered Thursday afternoon when it saw Sergio Garcia ambling toward the first hole with his caddie and his bag and his new belly putter.
That's funny, because when Garcia and the caddie and the bag and the belly putter ambled back down from No. 18 by Thursday evening, the beast lay conquered in the first round by Garcia's six-under-par 65, and the 136th British Open had another theme.
Not only had Garcia, who'd shot 89 in the first round here in 1999, shaved 24 shots of that horror to lead the field by two, but it developed that Garcia might just spend the weekend trying to defend the honor of the belly putter.
They share a labored history, Garcia and this belly putter. Neither has won a major despite years of trying.
So after Garcia bypassed Paul McGinley's 67 and Angel Cabrera's 68 and Tiger Woods' 69, plus 20 other players who participated in a cavalry charge to the great land of under par, Garcia got testy when one reporter gently mentioned the belly putter's 0-for-history.
"You shouldn't say that," Garcia said. "That's no good. You guys are always trying to find something, you know. A European hasn't won in so many years" -- eight, actually -- "nobody has won with a belly putter and this and that.
"You know, if I play like I played today and I putt like I putted today, maybe that will change soon. I don't care, I really don't . . . If I have to use, I don't know, whatever, a plastic bag to get 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."
What in the name of Bruce Lietzke is going on here?
Well, Garcia clearly dislikes any pooh-poohing of his new friend, the belly putter, which across a sanguine afternoon in chilly but serene conditions, helped him to some stats he might like: a mere 27 putts, a score of 31 on the back nine, birdies on Nos. 10, 12, 13, 14 and 17.
Long betrayed by putters after seven top-five finishes in majors and missed cuts at the Masters and U.S. Open this year, Garcia finally listened to belly-putter endorser Vijay Singh and switched after the U.S. Open. For the first day of the first major, anyway, he recorded his best start in a major, one shot better than his 66 at the 1999 PGA in Medinah, Ill., where at age 19 he finished second to Woods and became world famous.
It can be tough for a dashing youngster with big drives and a big future to yield to a golf-geriatric belly putter, as Garcia's case indicates. Asked why he didn't yield sooner, he said, "I don't know. Vijay has been telling me for like a year or two to do it and I haven't been listening to him."
So he walked up to No. 1, the course not shuddering, and he drove into the fairway, hit a nine-iron to eight feet, holed that for birdie, and turned to his caddie, Glenn Murray. "I looked at him and said, 'Well, that's four better than last time,' " when he managed an opening triple bogey.
Then, he went about bypassing bright lights that had climbed the leaderboard at the new tough-but-fair Carnoustie, as opposed to the 1999 concentric-circle-of-Hades Carnoustie.
Garcia passed the crowd Thursday at two under, who included Woods and the scalding K.J. Choi, Woods having eagled No. 6 with a certainty available to a twice-defending champion.
Garcia went on by the crowd at three under, which included U.S. Open champions Angel Cabrera and Michael Campbell, plus Irish teenager Rory McIlroy and American Boo Weekley.
Eventually, Garcia surpassed even Paul McGinley, the Irishman who'd shot 67 after 14 months of what he described as "mediocrity golf," including missing qualifying for the Masters this year -- and avoiding it on TV -- and missing the cut at the U.S. Open.
Asked to explain this sudden burst of excellence, the Ryder Cup maven McGinley said, "I wish I knew. It's a best-kept secret. I don't know. I found the swing on the golf course this morning, there's no doubt about that."
He'd gone out ahead of everybody, with John Daly passing him once for about five minutes, yet here came Garcia and his belly putter.
With his stupefying 24-shot improvement over last time, Garcia awarded himself, "Most improved, I guess."
Having left in 1999 in his mother's arms and tears, he grinned and joked, "Today I almost went to tears again."
As a grizzled veteran of 27, he said, "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 I shot today, because there's a lot more things to think about and there's a lot more things to worry about and try to figure out."
Against the backdrop of Woods having won six of the seven majors in which Garcia finished top-five, the 136th British Open had gotten underway, a course and a field trying to catch a Spaniard and a belly putter.