Sergio Garcia in a better place

HOYLAKE, England -- The victory came at the end of a long season, after more than a year without winning, a nice confidence boost for one of the most talented yet enigmatic players in the game.

Sergio Garcia's victory at the Thailand Golf Championship in December 2013 didn't register on golf's Richter scale, didn't really cause much of a stir given the faraway location and its lack of relative importance.

But a win is a win, and it is instructive that Garcia had his girlfriend, Katharina Boehm, caddying for him that week. They had a big laugh earlier this year when Garcia said he was "firing'' her, making it clear that it was a one-off deal and that he would go back to having a professional caddie on the bag.

That would be Neil Wallace, and he didn't exactly find the whole thing to be so funny.

"I was feeling the pressure,'' Wallace said, laughing. "It didn't take long, but I needed to get that monkey off my back for sure.''

Wallace got that victory in Garcia's next start, a European Tour event in Qatar. And the two have been a solid tandem since they began working together nearly a year ago at the Wyndham Championship.

They were unable to pull through Sunday for the major championship that surprisingly has eluded Garcia for 15 years. But the Spaniard made a game of it, pushing Rory McIlroy over the back nine at Royal Liverpool, and came within a roll here and a missed bunker shot there of pulling off an epic comeback.

And wouldn't that have been fitting?

Garcia, who finished tied for second with Rickie Fowler at 15 under, now has four runner-up finishes in majors, the first coming way back in 1999 at Medinah, the 19-year-old kid making Tiger Woods sweat it out at the PGA Championship. On Sunday at the Open Championship, it was Garcia who made the kid sweat, pulling within 2 strokes of McIlroy with four holes to play.

The trouble was, Garcia began the round 7 strokes back.

"It's difficult when you know you're in a situation where you know you can't make a mistake,'' said Garcia, whose 5-under-par 67 included an eagle at the 10th hole but a crushing bogey at the 15th. "It just puts that little extra pressure. So many good things happened throughout this week. Even today I got a couple of good breaks. It was close. At least I'm proud of the way I played.''

Good breaks? My, how times have changed.

Remember the Open at Carnoustie in 2007, when Garcia lamented the poor bounces he got, even going so far as to blame a worker charged with raking the bunkers for taking too long? Garcia missed a putt on the 72nd hole that looked in all the way, then lost to Padraig Harrington in a playoff. He also came up short against Harrington the following year at the PGA Championship -- the last time he finished in the top five in a major.

Sunday's finish was different, and for reasons beyond the painful nature of the other close calls.

Garcia is different now. He seems more relaxed, more at peace. The petulance of years gone by has been replaced by a more pragmatic approach. He seems to take the bad with the good. And perhaps Boehm is the reason.

It is not a reach to suggest that Boehm, who politely declined an interview request, has had a substantial influence. Remember Garcia's spat with Woods at the 2013 Players Championship, followed by the "fried chicken'' comment a few weeks later at the BMW Championship? Garcia has had no issues since, and he and Boehm started dating seriously just before that major dustup.

"They have good chemistry and I don't think she's scared to give him a kick in the butt when he needs it,'' Wallace said. "He must value what she says. She's a golfer; she played golf for a long time. He's been great in my time with him. No problem.''

Boehm, who is from Germany, played college golf at the College of Charleston and has been Garcia's constant companion at tournaments over the past year. And Wallace, who used to caddie for the likes of Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman, had been in Garcia's group often enough over the years to witness some of the issues for which he's been known.

"I think mentally he's a lot different than he used to be,'' Wallace said. "Obviously being in position to win a major and you're playing well, it's always easier. If he stays the way he was this week and has that attitude at every major ... it's just a matter of time.''

Garcia, 34, now has 19 top-10 finishes in major championships. With eight wins on the PGA Tour and another 11 on the European Tour, he clearly has had a solid career. But he now has six top-3s in majors, topped only by the eight for Lee Westwood among players who have no major victories. Among that same group, he is also tied for first with Westwood with 10 top-5s in majors since 1997.

But this was hardly a time to be despondent, considering how close he came. Garcia narrowly missed a birdie putt at the 11th, then left his third shot in a greenside bunker at the 15th. "That was obviously a mistake,'' he said. "I was trying as hard as I could. I just tried to get too cute ... but I'm proud. I'm happy.

"I felt like I played well. I felt like I did almost everything I could. And there was a better player. It's as simple as that.''

It could certainly be argued that Garcia had no pressure Sunday. He was so far back, there was little to lose. He could freewheel it, try to go low, see what happens.

But he came close to making it happen. He made McIlroy work, and in the process, took away some confidence.

Perhaps the long-awaited major is still in Garcia's future.