New putter helps Garcia belly up to the top

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- The babe-magnet Sergio Garcia lives in Spain and drives sports cars. He appears in beer ads in which he wears a tuxedo and does a decent James Bond imitation. And he always, always gets the girl.

But Garcia's reputation as an international playboy golfer goes into the crapper if he ends up winning the British Open. And it's his own fault.

The very single, very 27-year-old Garcia shot a respectable even-par 71 during the second round at Carnoustie Friday. That, and the 65 he put on the board a day earlier, mean he's led the British Open from wire to halfway point. Keep this up and he'll leave Scotland with a Claret Jug and without the hated title, Best Player Never To Have Won A Major. He'll also break a nasty European 0-fer: 0 for their past 31 majors.

But if he does win -- and Garcia has gakked away his share of potential majors in the past -- he'll have to do it with, yuck, a belly putter. What's next, a ball retriever in his bag?

Your uncle who suffers from osteoporosis uses a belly putter. A Champions Tour player with a belly uses a belly putter. A dashing Spaniard on his way to claiming the signature win of his career does not use a belly putter. It'd be like Bond wearing a clip-on tie.

But Garcia was so desperate that about a week ago he disconnected his conventional putter from its life-support system and switched to the belly. It works, but now he looks like he's putting with a garden hoe.

Garcia would putt with a car fender if he thought it would help. He ranked 196th in PGA Tour putting average in 2005 and 158th in 2006. Guys who can't putt usually spend the rest of their lives in therapy or wondering: What if?

If Garcia could putt, he would have won a major by now. If he could putt, Tiger Woods would be a few more major victories behind Jack Nicklaus. But Garcia is still a work in progress (he's tied for 38th in putting average this season), and still in search of major No. 1.

This might be different. Garcia and his prototype Rossa Corzina putter provided by Taylor Made seem to be going steady. If the romance holds up through Sunday, Garcia might just tie the knot.

"If it helps, like I think it's helping me, I'm not going to change it," Garcia said Friday.

Garcia's putter looks like something you'd use to clean a musket barrel. It reaches higher than his hips and has all the elegance of a PVC pipe. But it works. So far.

All day long Garcia made putts that mattered, including a long, long lag on No. 17 that needed a train ticket to get to tap-in range. But Garcia did it. The same goes for No. 18, when he coaxed in a par-saver from knee-knock range.

Those are the kind of putts that can mean the difference in a championship won or lost. Just ask Garcia, who yakked on short putts during the final round of last year's British Open.

Nobody has ever questioned Garcia's ball-striking ability. From tee to green, he's one of the best in the world. From green to cup, he's been one of the worst.

"Golf is a funny game," he said. "And when you're struggling with your short game, it does put a lot of pressure on your long game because in the back of your mind you're thinking, 'You know, don't miss the green.' Because if you miss the green, you're going to be trying to make bogey. So it does put extra pressure. When your short game is on, it's easier to kind of loosen up."

Garcia's short game is on, but he's not exactly loose. He still bristles when asked about not winning a major ("I'm trying, I can tell you that."). And it's probably a good idea not to ask him about that crying incident after the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. You'd cry too if you shot 89-83.

Even though he has 12 top-10 finishes in majors, including five of the past six British Opens, Garcia still needs to convince himself he can win this thing. The fewer putts, the better.

"Today, I'm not going to lie," he said. "I was a little nervous at the beginning because you want to do well after a good round like I had yesterday."

How nervous? Well, he cold-shanked a 9-iron into the gunk on the par-4 first hole. "It was a solid shank, though," he said. "It was good."

No, what was good was the escape from the gnarly grasses on the hill where his second shot settled. Garcia choked down on a wedge, took almost a full shoulder turn, and whacked the clubhead into the thick stuff. Somehow the ball emerged cleanly, bounced in just the right spot and settled near the hole. He could have used a soup ladle for the near-tap-in par.

"More than anything, it was a really nice shot because it kept me on the right mood," he said.

Garcia is funny that way. He can be playful. He can be darker than some of the clouds that occasionally floated low over Carnoustie on Friday afternoon. After the second round, he still chose his words carefully.

"I'd rather be leading than being eight shots back, that's for sure," Garcia said. "Because you don't feel like you have to push your game to the limit all the time. So I'm pretty happy the way I'm standing right now."

Sure he is. Tiger Woods, who is going for the British Open three-peat, is seven strokes back. Jim Furyk trails by four. Retief Goosen by five. As 36-hole views go, it's a nice vantage point.

But Garcia will only go as far as that garden hoe lets him. He knows it. The rest of the field knows it.

A day earlier Garcia said he'd use a plastic bag to putt if he thought it would help. Watch closely on Saturday. If he has a fistfight with that belly putter during the third round, don't be surprised by what you see in his bag on Sunday.

A box of Heftys.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.