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Garcia surging towards championship

American Stricker three shots back

    CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — The cheers grew louder as Sergio Garcia crossed the bridge over Barry Burn toward the 18th green at Carnoustie, a reception so warm it gave him chills. He removed his cap in a steady rain and soaked up the adulation.
    It was a scene fit for a coronation at the British Open.
    For Garcia, the odds have never been better. He has never played better or felt so confident.
    Garcia played close to perfection Saturday, a 3-under 68 that gave him a three-shot lead over Steve Stricker, with no one else closer than six shots. And while this will be the third time he has played in the final group at a major, there are two drastic differences.
    He has the lead this time, and Tiger Woods won’t be at his side.
    ‘‘It definitely doesn’t hurt,’’ Garcia said. ‘‘But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I only depend on myself.’’
    Garcia finished off his bogey-free round with a 5-iron that never left the flag and sent him chasing after it, screaming out instructions with an intensity that showed he already knew the outcome.
    ‘‘Oh, be good,’’ he said. ‘‘BE GOOD!’’
    It hopped onto the green and stopped 12 feet left the flag, and the only disappointment was having to settle for par.
    ‘‘I wanted to make the putt on 18 just for them, and to hear the roar, that would have been just out of this world,’’ said Garcia, who was at 9-under 204 and holding the 54-hole lead in a major for the first time.
    Stricker might have to match his record round to give Garcia a fight. He ran off three straight birdies at the start Saturday, and was equally impressive with four par saves at the end for a 64, the best score ever at Carnoustie during a British Open.
    ‘‘It was just one of those rounds where everything kind of went right,’’ Stricker said. ‘‘It was quite a day. It was quite an experience. It was a lot of fun, and it gives myself a chance going into tomorrow.’’
    Whether anyone else has a chance depends on Garcia.
    The 27-year-old Spaniard has held a 54-hole lead nine times in his career, and he has only converted five of them. Two years ago at the Wachovia Championship, he squandered a six-shot lead in the final round and lost in a playoff.
    ‘‘He’s got a lot of things to think about tonight,’’ Ernie Els said. ‘‘I’ve been in that position many times. It’s not an easy sleep.’’
    Els, a three-time major champion, overcame a triple-bogey 8 on the easiest hole at Carnoustie to shoot a 68, leaving him in the large group at 3-under 210 that included Chris DiMarco (66), Padraig Harrington (68) and K.J. Choi (72).
    One guy Garcia won’t have to think about is Woods.
    Trying to become the first player in more than 50 years to win the British Open three straight time, Woods beaned a 63-year-old woman in the head. It left her bandaged and bleeding, and Woods queasy at the sight of blood on the links.
    He wound up with a 69, leaving him eight shots behind at 1-under 212. Woods has never won a major from behind, and only once has he made up an eight-shot deficit on the final day of any tournament — the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand.
    ‘‘I’ve got to be playing a little better than I have been, that’s for sure,’’ Woods said. ‘‘But at least I gave myself a chance going into tomorrow. Paul (Lawrie) came from 10 back in ’99. Certainly, you can do it around this golf course.’’
    Yes, but Lawrie needed a triple bogey from Jean Van de Velde on the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999. The Frenchman was a newcomer to this arena back then. Garcia has been contending for majors since he was 19, and he looks as though he’s about to finally break through.
    ‘‘It’s going to be a hard day, but hopefully one to remember,’’ he said.
    Garcia was trailing Woods by one shot at Royal Liverpool last year and quickly fell further behind. He was four shots behind Woods in the final group at Bethpage Black in the ’02 U.S. Open, and never had a chance.
    ‘‘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,’’ Garcia said. ‘‘That’s what I did on Thursday, that’s what I did most parts of Friday and that’s what I did today. If I’m in control, the way I’m hitting the ball, it’s right there for the taking. Hopefully, it will be good enough.’’
    What was supposed to be the nastiest day of the week turned out to be the easiest day, perhaps because Royal & Ancient officials set the pins to account for weather that turned out to be light rain and a moderate breeze.
    Garcia missed only two shots and escaped with par both times. His approach to the third narrowly avoided the Jockie Burn, and he pitched to 4 feet. On the 17th, he pulled a 4-iron that was headed for deep rough next to a gorse bush, but it struck a photographer behind the left ear and bounced into light rough.

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