SOUTHPORT, England --- In betting parlors and inside the ropes, Sergio Garcia has never had better odds of winning a major.
No one has more top 10s in the British Open this decade than Garcia, who has gone into the final round within four shots of the lead six times in the past seven years. He is considered among the best ball-strikers in golf. He is not lacking imagination or creativity for the variety of shots required on links courses.
And it sure doesn't hurt that Tiger Woods isn't around.
"When you don't have the No. 1 player in the world playing here -- and obviously, we know how good he is and how well he's done in the majors -- it gives you a little bit more of a chance," Garcia said Tuesday. "But it doesn't mean that it's yours to win."
The British bookmakers believe otherwise. Woods had season- ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th career major, leaving the British Open up for grabs. Bookies have installed Garcia as the favorite at Royal Birkdale, with odds as low as 8-to-1.
There was a reason for such high hope, even before Woods began to wobble on one leg.
Garcia ended a three-year victory drought in May when he captured The Players Championship in a sudden-death playoff over Paul Goydos, despite taking 18 more putts in regulation. Two weeks ago, he finished strong to finish runner-up at the French Open.
"I feel like my game is probably as good as it's ever been," he said. "I don't feel complete, but I feel like I'm closer."
Among majors, no place feels like home more than the British Open. Garcia has felt the affection of these galleries since he was an 18-year-old amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998, when he tied for 25th. The Spaniard thrives on emotion, and the reception he gets throughout Britain only makes him play better.
"They've been very good to me," he said. "And that always helps."
But he has given them only close calls to celebrate, especially the past two years. A year ago was the most devastating of all.
Garcia took a three-shot lead going into the final round at Carnoustie, and despite struggling on the greens, he still had a 10-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to win the claret jug. The putt dipped slightly into the cup before staying out, and Garcia stared at it in disbelief. Then in the playoff, he had a 3-iron bounce off the pin on the par-3 16th and wound up one shot behind.
Distraught over his misfortune, he blamed everything and everybody but himself.
"Sunday night and Monday were a little bit tough," he said. "Other than that, you think about the week, you think about everything you did, and you realize that you did the best you could."
Putting remains a problem, despite his work the past six months with putting guru Stan Utley, but there is less demand on the greens at the British Open than other majors.
Garcia is considered among the best players to have never won a major, a title that used to belong to Phil Mickelson, but perhaps not for long.
"A major championship is very close in his realm," Mickelson said. "And the fact that he came close last year in the Open Championship and didn't win, I don't think it's something to really worry too much about. I think that his major championship is coming very soon."
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southampton, England (7,180 yards, par 70)
TELEVISION: Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., TNT; Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. TNT; Saturday, 7 to 9 a.m. TNT, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ABC-Ch. 6; Sunday, 6 to 8 a.m. TNT, 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. ABC-Ch. 6
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Padraig Harrington