GULLANE, Scotland – Tiger Woods is getting a late start to the British Open at Muirfield.
Woods plays the opening two rounds with former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. They tee off at 9:45 a.m. EDT, with a 4:44 a.m. EDT start Friday. Its the first time Woods has been drawn with either of them on a weekday of a major.
Woods is the betting favorite to end his five-year drought in the majors.
Rory McIlroy plays with Scottish Open winner Phil Mickelson, along with Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.
Nick Faldo, returning to Muirfield one last time, is in a group with five-time Open champion Tom Watson and Fred Couples.
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose plays with defending champion Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker.
Els returned the shiny claret jug he won last year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes when he handed it over to Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson.
Thank you, Dawson told him. Youve been a great champion.
Now its up to the 43-year-old South African to reclaim the silver prize, and that doesnt figure to be easy.
Els won last month in Germany. He won the last time the Open was played at Muirfield in 2002. He has more top 10s in the British Open than any other major. But he has this piece of history working against him – the last major champion in his 40s to successfully defend his title was Old Tom Morris, and that was 151 years ago.
The Big Easy is not a betting man, but he was asked to pick someone to wager a pound on at Muirfield.
Id have to look at the odds, wouldnt I? he said, trying to buy time. Maybe a long shot. I like to go for the long shots.
Thats what he might have been considered last year at Royal Lytham. He was winless on a major tour in two years, failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time in nearly two decades and was No. 40 in the world.
But he was close to flawless on the back nine and was the recipient of a shocking collapse by Adam Scott, who made bogey on his last four holes to finish one shot behind.
Back to the wager. He was asked who should be considered in the pole position.
To name one, Im going to have to name 20, Els said. Thats how close it is. I dont know. A guy who likes the layout. A guy who likes the bounces. Im not sure.
Woods is always a favorite, and he has the best odds this week, even though he hasnt won the claret jug since Hoylake in 2006.
Els is well aware of the quality of champions Muirfield tends to produce, from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, along with Nick Faldo and Els.
And, yes, he believes the course has something to do with that.