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Sergio Garcia has embraced the pressure that comes with leading the Open. (Getty Images)
Sergio Garcia has embraced the pressure that comes with leading the Open. (Getty Images)

For Garcia and pursuers, history awaits at Carnoustie

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Sunday looms as potentially a career-defining day for Sergio Garcia, who has held the lead all week. But almost everyone else in the top nine has something to prove as well, setting up a final round at Carnoustie that could be one for the ages.

By Melanie Hauser, Contributor

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- He's trying his best not to think about it -- and definitely not to talk about it -- but he knows.

He's tucked his cell phone away and refused to look at the messages that could distract him. He's getting his work done and getting away to kick back with his family and eat mom's home cooking.

He's avoiding the negatives, smiling through the positives. Doesn't want to think about the past, only the present.

And wouldn't it have been great to hear the ground shake, he grinned, if only he could have birdied the 18th hole?

As utterly desperate as the Europeans are to have one of their own win this 136th Open Championship, Sergio Garcia is equally desperate to be their man Sunday afternoon. They love him here. His fist pumps. His winks. His smiles. His 27-going-on-17 chatter. His ability to wrap even the crustiest Scot around his little finger.

They believe it's brilliant that he's three shots clear of Steve Stricker and six shots clear of the next closest group of major contenders. That he's putting as well as ever. That he's getting the job done on the hardest course in the Open rota.

That the stage is set.

Garcia is about to play the defining round of his career. He's cruised through the first three rounds here at Carnoustie Golf Links and the Claret Jug is there for the taking.

It's his third time in the final pairing at a major, his first in the 54-hole lead and his first without Tiger Woods beside him. Tiger, in fact, is eight shots back. And the only major winner within six shots of him is Ernie Els, who has three Opens -- one British, two U.S. -- to his credit. Just think if Els hadn't tripled No. 6.

Yes, the pressure is on young Garcia. If Tiger would happen to throw out a 64 and pass him, that's OK. But when you're nursing a three-shot lead at an Open Championship and you haven't won a major? Can you say Greg Norman at the Masters? And that was six shots.

And at Carnoustie? Jean Van de Velde was up by five shots here in 1999 and, well, we need not elaborate on the soggy details. Paul Lawrie came from 10 shots back to win the playoff over Justin Leonard and Van de Velde.

Garcia isn't Van de Velde. The Spaniard has been thisclose to winning majors in the past. He's pulled off Ryder Cup miracles. Heck, he's finished in the top 10 at five of the last six Open Championships and has a dozen top 10s in majors. His best? That split-legged leap of a runner-up finish to Tiger in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah.

He was in the final pairing with Tiger at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black and finished fourth. He was in the final pairing with Tiger last year at Hoylake and tied for fifth.

So what's going through his mind now?

"I'm going to go out there and try to play my own game, just like I've been doing every single day and just believe in myself as much as possible," he said. "That's the only thing I can do. That's what I did on Friday ? that's what I did on Thursday, that's what I did most parts of Friday and that's what I did today.

"The only thing I can do is control myself and that's about it. So I think if I am in control, the way I'm hitting the ball it's right there for the taking. Hopefully it will be good enough."

Saturday, Carmisty was there for the taking. It was grey, damp and cold -- scoring weather Els called it. Stricker threw out a 64. Chris DiMarco, who was second last year at Hoylake, shot 66. There was a plethora of 67s and 68s. K.J. Choi and Mike Weir backed up with 72s.

Rumor has it Carnasty may show up Sunday. But Tiger, for one, isn't counting on it.

"The forecast was wrong again today," he said. "It was supposed to be torrential rains, and that didn't happen. Tomorrow is supposed to be howling. We'll see."

Indeed, we will.

With Tiger walking the fine line between playing like Tiger or just another contender, the odds of his first comeback win at a major -- and thus becoming the first player since Peter Thomson to win three Opens in a row -- won't tempt many at the Ladbrokes windows. The chance of a European winner? Much brighter.

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Garcia is one of five Europeans among the top 14 players. Of the others -- Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington, Paul Broadhurst and Miguel Angel Jimenez -- only Harrington and Jimenez are major-tested.

And the rest of the board? Let's say everyone, save Els, in that top nine have something to prove. And something to overcome. At 2 under? Well, there are major champions Weir, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk .

Yes, Garcia is about to play the biggest round of his career. His belly putter has taken the pressure off the rest of his game and his confidence has done the rest. And he wouldn't mind following Tiger as the next wire-to-wire winner on this side of the pond.

But the stage may well belong to Carnoustie. Even if the weather doesn't turn nasty and the wind doesn't howl.

A shot into the Barry Burn here or there -- Tiger whapped one in there off the first tee Friday -- and suddenly things begin to change. A bunker swallows a drive. The wet rough grabs a club. The Sunday pins take charge.

We're by no means predicting another 1999. But with a dozen players looking for their first majors and Garcia sleeping on a three-shot lead, well, it will be Sunday at a major.

Garcia waved off questions about what he hasn't done Sunday, much the same way Stricker sidestepped questions about his swing a few years ago. He knows even if he stumbled at the start, he has a few shots to play with.

"I guess the good thing about it is even if you don't have the best of starts that you're still there, and your game kicks in and you can always do it," Garcia said. "But if you're behind and you don't have the best of starts, it feels like you're falling way back. And it feels like then you can't play as comfortably. You have to attack more and try to go for some pins that maybe you shouldn't and things like that."

The bottom line? Garcia doesn't know what to expect. No one does. Carnoustie magnifies weaknesses. And leading a major for three days wears you down.

"It's definitely been tiring, but not only for me," he said. "I think it's been tiring for everybody. Majors are always tiring.

"I tell you what, I don't change it for the world," he added. "There's nothing better than seeing your name on the top of the leader board day after day after day. I think it's great. I'm thrilled about it."

He grinned.

"I've just got to do it for one more day."

The defining day.

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