By Tony Jimenez
HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia has taken his fair share of bumps and bruises in his 18 appearances at the British Open but the love affair is still going strong after all these years, the Spaniard said on Thursday.
Garcia went close the last time golf's oldest major was played at Hoylake in 2006, tying for fifth spot, and closer still at Carnoustie a year later when he finished as runner-up to Padraig Harrington.
The Ryder Cup stalwart is still striving to shake off the unwanted tag of 'one of the best players never to win a major' and he took a step in the right direction with a four-under 68 in the opening round at Royal Liverpool.
"This championship, even through the tough years, is different for me," Garcia told reporters. "I love it so much.
"After the Ryder Cup it's my favorite tournament. You always come with a different frame of mind even if you're struggling a little bit."
Garcia said the atmosphere at the third major of the season was similar to that in the biennial match between Europe and the United States.
"I enjoy the people out there," the world number nine explained. "It almost feels like a Ryder Cup when people start shouting 'Come on lads' and things like that.
"You don't hear that often and it's good to hear."
Garcia was out of the traps like a greyhound on Thursday, galvanized by "a funny moment" at the first hole.
"I always remember my hole-out on the second hole on Saturday here in 2006 with a nine-iron," he said.
"Funnily enough today I hit a nine-iron at the first today and almost holed out again. It hit the pin and went to two feet."
The 34-year-old birdied the first, third, fifth, 11th and 13th holes, with his only bogey arriving at the par-five 10th.
Failing to gain a shot at the longest holes is always an irritant to the top players and, sure enough, Garcia responded in style by chipping in at the 11th.
"Bogeying a par-five always stings a bit," he said. "I pulled my nine-iron left of the green on 11 and I was thinking, 'let's see if I can fly it on this little flat spot and let it run down the hill.
"Fortunately it went straight in the middle, hit the pin and went in. That was a really nice moment."
(Editing by Toby Davis)