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Garcia enters Open on a roll

| Wednesday, June 16, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- First, there was the image of Sergio Garcia slashing at a shot at the base of a tree in the 1999 PGA Championship. Then, there was the image of Garcia hopping up and down at the Masters in April, angry with what he considered media slights over the past couple of years while he made serious swing changes.

Rewind to the past month, and the young Spaniard is no longer hopping. Instead, he's been standing proudly twice in that time span, accepting winners' checks and trophies.

Is the mini Seve Ballesteros reaching the heights that were predicted for him when he finished behind Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA• Do the wins at the EDS Byron Nelson Classic and last week's Buick Classic stamp him as a contender this week in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club?

"I feel like I'm pretty comfortable with my game," he said. "I've been quite consistent lately and really feel like I have a bit more confidence in myself to try to do something here. I don't want to say that I'm a favorite this week, but I feel like I'm playing nicely, so for my own confidence, that's always good."

This will be Garcia's fifth U.S. Open, and the only real success he's had in the event came two years ago when the Open was held about 30 miles west of Shinnecock Hills at Bethpage Black. He was in the top five every round, eventually shooting a 74 on Sunday that left him in fourth.

The course and the tournament were difficult enough, but the fans turned on Garcia after the first round. He was still using his old swing, which had more trigger mechanisms than a Remington factory.

"I don't think all of that affected me that much," Garcia said. "I tried to block it out. As I always said, I think it was just a minority of the whole crowd. I felt like a lot of people were behind me. There was that little group that was a bit louder than the rest, and you could hear them more."

The crowd issue aside, Garcia has good memories about a very difficult week in June 2002.

"Well, I hope I can put myself back in that position and test myself again and see how I go through that," he said. "I really feel like there's a lot more consistency in me now than there was before. I feel like I know what I'm doing. I really liked the way I played that whole week. Unfortunately, Sunday, I didn't come out as well as I wanted to. It was a great learning experience."

If you're looking for any other reasons to justify Garcia as a serious contender, consider this week's venue. It's much more the type of course Garcia and the Europeans are used to than the Americans.

"Definitely, this course has a European look to it," Garcia said. "Although we're in New York, it feels like you're back in the British Isles. It's an absolutely links course, even the grass and everything looks the same as in the British Isles. We're all looking forward to it. It's going to be a tough week, but it should be fun."

While Westchester Country Club, site of Garcia's triumph last week in the Buick, bears little resemblance to Shinnecock Hills, he believes what happened there will have a very positive impact for him on what happens here.

"I thought last week, the way the course was playing, how fast and firm it was, my idea was that Sunday would be a big day to check your patience for this week," Garcia said. "The combination of how fast it was playing and how the wind was blowing 20-25 miles an hour, it was a good test. And I was happy to see myself get through that. And I think this week is going to be like that, but probably 10 times more."

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