By Ed Osmond
Tiger Woods will start the 142nd British Open at Muirfield on Thursday as favourite to win his 15th major title but the odds on the world number one are in double figures for the first time in 13 years.
Defending champion Ernie Els is 25-1 to retain the title at a course where he lifted the Claret Jug 11 years ago and U.S. Open winner Justin Rose is 20-1 to become the first English winner of the tournament since Nick Faldo in 1992.
Woods, who has not won a major for five years, is excited by the challenge of playing the course in fine weather conditions, a sharp contrast to 2002 when his hopes at Muirfield were scuppered by a third-round 81 in driving wind and rain.
“I’m looking forward to it,” the American told a news conference. “What a fantastic championship on one of the best venues.
“It’s playing really fast out there. The golf course has got a little bit of speed to it and I’m sure it will get really quick by the weekend so the golf course is set up perfectly.”
Woods said he was feeling very good about his form.
“I’ve had a pretty good year so far, won four times even though I haven’t won a major,” he added.
“It’s just a shot here and there. It’s making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce here, capitalising on an opportunity here and there. That’s what you have to do to win major championships.”
Els, 43, rolled back the years at Lytham 12 months ago, taking advantage of Adam Scott’s meltdown over the closing holes to seal his fourth major championship.
“I just feel this is a great golf course,” the South African said. “It reminds me a little bit of Lytham.
“Obviously last week I didn’t make the cut at the Scottish Open but I’ve had some extra time coming into the event and feel quite good about my game. I’m striking it nicely.”
American Phil Mickelson, four-times a major champion, won last week’s Scottish Open and is 20-1 to win his first British Open, the same odds as Rose and Australian Scott who made up for his Lytham disappointment by winning this year’s U.S. Masters.
Rose leads the British challenge as the nation’s golfers bid to ride a wave of sporting success that has also brought a rare rugby series win for the British & Irish Lions, Andy Murray’s stunning Wimbledon triumph and a nerve-jangling victory for England in a dramatic first Ashes test.
“Rose is a strong contender,” said Faldo who is making a rare appearance in the Open this year.
“It’s all been a process. It didn’t happen overnight, this has been a concerted plan for the last four years. Rose’s game has slowly been climbing. He might be strong enough to come out and carry on.”
Former world number ones Luke Donald and Lee Westwood will also be flying the British flag as they bid to end their long waits for a first major crown.
Twice major winner Rory McIlroy is alongside Westwood as a 25-1 shot to win the Open.
The Northern Irishman, however, has struggled since switching clubs at the start of the year and bookmaker Ladbrokes is also offering odds of 4-1 on him missing the cut.
The sun is expected to shine throughout the four-day tournament and, if it does, Woods will be a happy man as he wrestles with the unique challenges of links golf.
“I fell in love with links golf when I came here 17 years ago,” he said. “Because we play generally everywhere around the world an airborne game where you have to hit the ball straight up in the air and make it stop.
“Here it’s different,” added Woods who won his third and last British Open title at Hoylake seven years ago.
“A draw will go one distance, a fade will go another, and they’re so dramatic. I just absolutely love it.”