Sergio Garcia in a better place

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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.

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