HOYLAKE, England >> As he made his way to the 18th green, Sergio Garcia experienced a sensation that had eluded him in his 17 previous British Opens. He felt no despair, no devastation, no defensiveness. Garcia had been defeated, but en route to losing to Rory McIlroy, he had won a hard-earned prize: contentment.
The fans in the grandstands ringing the green sensed the change in Garcia, who produced his lowest final-round score in a British Open on Sunday at Royal Liverpool, a 6-under-par 66. That would have lifted him to victory in perhaps any other British Open, against any opponent other than a Tiger Woods or a Rory McIlroy in possession of his A-game.
The ovation that greeted Garcia gave him goose bumps. After he made a final birdie, his fifth of the round, to finish at 15-under 273, he doffed his cap, pirouetted to the crowd, blew a kiss and repeatedly tapped his heart.
Thunderous applause rolled in like waves at high tide, and Garcia bathed in it as he left the stage.
"That’s a feeling that nobody can take away from me," he said. "And that’s one of the reasons why I love this championship."
Garcia, 34, has always had an ardent following at this tournament, partly because he has been playing in European Tour events since he was 15, but mostly because of his honesty. He is temperamentally incapable of inauthenticity.
The emotions that fuel his play have a way of backfiring. But on Sunday, Garcia kept his composure. He did not follow a sub-70 third round with a 73, as he did in 2005, 2006 and 2007 to finish fifth (Woods won), fifth (Woods won again) and second (to Padraig Harrington in a playoff).
He did not come unglued after his bunker shot on the par-3 15th did not clear the 4-foot wall, setting up his lone bogey of the round. Two of Garcia’s birdies came after that blunder.
With those birdies, on Nos. 16 and 18, he finished 5 under for the round on par 5s. It was a valiant effort, but in the end, the seven-stroke deficit he had to make up was too much.
"Every time I got closer, he kept making one birdie and not letting me get any closer," Garcia said.
He was referring to McIlroy, who posted a 71 while playing in the final group to win by two.
"I felt like I did almost everything I could," Garcia added. "And there was a better player. It’s as simple as that."
Why has Garcia not been the best player in a major?
The question was posed to Jim Furyk, whose round of 65 put him in fourth place, as he stood answering questions with one eye on the telecast showing Garcia’s finish.
"Probably you all putting so much damn pressure on him," Furyk joked.
He added, "I’d be willing to bet, if he did win one, it would be a huge relief. And I could see him playing very well for the next five years after that."
McIlroy, 25, a three-time major winner, is having the kind of early success once forecast for Garcia. He and Garcia are good friends, and during the greenside awards presentation, McIlroy acknowledged the fine play of Garcia and Rickie Fowler, who finished tied with Garcia for second after posting four sub-70 rounds.
"Well done for putting up such a good fight," McIlroy said.
Garcia is far from finished, especially not at this tournament, where, at 64, Tom Watson came close to shooting his age with a 68 on Sunday.
As he made his way around Royal Liverpool on Sunday knowing he could not afford to make a mistake if he was to have any chance at catching McIlroy, the steeliness Garcia exhibited was a minor triumph.
"It was close," Garcia said. "It was close. At least I’m proud of the way I played."
Karen Crouse, New York Times