CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sergio Garcia has a chance to prove everyone wrong. Those who said he couldn't hit the accurate tee shots when it mattered most. Those who said he couldn't hit the clutch irons when it mattered most. Those who said he couldn't sink the testy putts when it mattered most.
The charismatic Spaniard is leading a major at the halfway point. And Tiger Woods is a daunting seven shots behind.
"I'd rather be leading ... that's for sure," said Garcia, who followed his brilliant 6-under-par 65 in the opening round at Carnoustie with a workmanlike 71 on Friday. "I'm pretty happy the way I'm standing right now."
Garcia is probably the best player around who's yet to win a major, and plenty of guys with less talent have claimed one of golf's biggest prizes. But this is shaping up as the weekend where El Nino finally silences all of his detractors.
A new belly putter — with a long shaft that sticks in his gut, helping to steady his stroke — seems to have resolved his biggest problem, those shaky attempts from 4 and 6 and 8 feet away that often separate the champions from the pretenders.
"I just feel a bit more comfortable than I did with the little putter," Garcia said. "Under pressure, I think I can put a better stroke on it."
If Garcia keeps making those kind of putts, it will be difficult for anyone to catch him. Especially Woods, who shot a 3-over 74 in the second round and found himself with a lot of shots to make up in the quest for his third straight Open title.
Woods got off to a most uncharacteristic start Friday. He pulled out an iron for his first shot of the day, intending to play it safe with the tee shot. Instead, he yanked it far left, the ball hopping into the Barry Burn at a spot where the famous stream rarely comes into play.
"It was such a poor shot because the commitment wasn't there," said Woods, who wound up with a double bogey.
The opening hole set the tone for the rest of Woods' round. He was merely hanging on, as two shots came within inches of sliding into perilous pot bunkers, while another was headed for the burn until it rattled around in a small cluster of trees and dropped safely in the middle of them.
"Still not out of it," Woods insisted, even though 18 players separated him from the top of the leaderboard.
Garcia also hit a bad shot on the very first hole. His 9-iron approach skidded into a nasty lie in the rough right of the green.
What followed was a chip that would have made fellow Spaniard and short-game genius Seve Ballesteros proud. It skirted the edge of a bunker and rolled to tap-in range for an unlikely par that brightened Garcia's mood.
He took another step toward validating his promise, grinding his way through chilly breezes with birdies on both par 5s and only a couple of mistakes that put him two shots clear of K.J. Choi.
Garcia has contended for majors since he was a teenager, but the 27-year-old Spaniard looks as though he might finally have figured them out. Garcia wasn't at his best in the second round, but he was good enough.
"It was more of a grinder's day," Garcia said. "But overall, I'm still pretty happy about it."
Choi, perhaps the hottest player in golf with victories at two big tournaments in the last two months, was bearing down on Garcia with a string of birdies along the back nine until a bogey on the final hole that was a foot away from being worse.
The South Korean's tee shot narrowly avoided the burn left of the 18th fairway, forcing Choi to stand on the stone steps and punch back to the fairway.
"You've just got to play that hole as a par 5," Choi said, savoring a 69. "Even if you get a bogey, just consider it a good par."
He will join Garcia in the final group Saturday of a major that is starting to take shape.
The best round Friday belonged to former Masters champion Mike Weir of Canada, a 68 that put him at 3-under 139 along with another Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jimenez, who had a 70. Another shot behind was former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk (70) and Boo Weekley, whose backwoods charm is starting to captivate Britain as much as his ball-striking.
The group at 1-under 141 included U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen.
And where was Phil Mickelson? Heading home before the weekend at his second straight major, his hopes scuttled by a dismal 77.
Lefty needed a par on the final hole to make the cut but hit a power fade into Barry Burn and wound up with a double bogey. It was a setback for the three-time major champion, who lost in a playoff last week at the Scottish Open.
"I thought I was playing better than this," Mickelson said.
Also leaving early was Colin Montgomerie, whose victory two weeks ago in Ireland renewed hopes that a major was still in his future. Paul Lawrie, the stunning winner at Carnoustie in 1999, took double bogey on the final hole and missed the cut by one.
Garcia has never had the lead going into the weekend at a major, and his work is far from done. Five major champions are among those within six shots of the lead, with nasty weather forecast for Saturday.
Still, he relished the way he stood up to the burden of leading after the first round.
"All eyes were looking at me," Garcia said. "It was good to still post a good, solid round and keep myself up there."