Els unruffled as history and a duel with Woods beckons

South African hopes to battle it out with world No 1 to be the first winner of back-to-back Open titles in 20 years
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Typical of golf - you win £366,660 on the Sunday and lose $40 on the Tuesday. This game has a nasty habit of kicking you in the teeth just when your smile is at its pearliest. No matter who you are, payback always seems to be around the next dogleg.

Just ask Ernie Els, who didn't so much cruise to the Scottish Open last week as pick up a lift in the Tardis. But transport yourself forward two days and there was the world No 2 handing over the money in a "friendly" four-ball to Vijay Singh and Charles Howell III. Why, it could be enough to ruin a man.

But maybe not Els, who must have had more on his mind during practice here yesterday. History is beckoning the affable South African to become the first golfer in two long decades to win back-to-back Opens, but as ever Els will not be hurried. Indeed, he will not even be worried by the mountainous task that awaits him in the dunes of Sandwich.

"I don't think you get added pressure being the defending champion," the 33-year-old said yesterday. "To be honest, I haven't really felt any different this week. I know that players have won back-to-back Open Championships before, so there's no extra pressure to get into any kind of record book or anything. I want to stay focused, play golf and the other stuff will probably take care of itself. I've got no added pressure."

Blimey, he is feeling it. But then, perhaps, he should, because not even Tom Watson heading for Birkdale in 1983 was in such rude health as he stood on the brink of his own Open double. Els's five-shot victory over Darren Clarke and Phillip Price at Loch Lomond on Sunday boosted his wins-to-tournaments ratio in 2003 to better than one in four as he collected his fifth tournament of the 19 he has entered. Only Tiger Woods can boast a more impressive return this year, having won four out of 11.

There is the reason that Els can appear so relaxed as the hours count down to four rounds that may just define his career. Because when Woods is in town there is only one favourite, the world No 1 becoming the seething epicentre for all expectation, leaving Els and his supporting cast to bask in the shadows. "All the attention he's been getting here for not winning a major recently is ridiculous," Els said. "It's nice that he isn't holding a Grand Slam for the first time in five years, but I don't think he's changed much. Tiger's playing so well and this week I think he's out to prove something."

But if Woods is to prove it then he will surely have to get past Els first, a much-awaited collision between golf's fattest cats that would have them purring in clubhouses all over the world. Els, for his part, would relish such a duel. "Hopefully it will happen," he admitted. "I feel really good about this week so we'll just wait and see. Physically I'm as good as I've ever been and my game has never been better. I made some nice putts last week, so that was a good sign. It was a good sign to win from day one, to sleep with the pressure of leading the golf tournament. I haven't done that since February or March."

Woods has not done it since a week last Sunday, when he completed his own "wire-to-wire" victory at the Western Open in Illinois. It seems that whatever Els can do, Woods does first, although the one advantage the South African has this week is a prior run-out at Royal St George's. Ten years ago, as the most talked about young tyro on tour, he became one of only a handful of players who have ever broken 70 in all four rounds. That was still nowhere near enough to overhaul Greg Norman, however.

"It was a learning experience in 1993," Els said. "I did not come here then trying to win the championship. I was just trying to make enough money and learn. I wasn't like the 23-year-olds that come on to tour now, that's for sure. I was here to have a good time.

"But I think guys who have played here before will definitely have a bit of an advantage because the conditions we have at the moment are not the wind direction that normally blows here. It comes from a totally opposite way. And if that starts happening then experience will count around here.

"Because if the weather gets bad then this might be one of the toughest Opens of the lot. You will have to accept the rough with the smooth. Take today - if I had made one putt I could have won some money."

Els was joking but will be aware that come Sunday it could all hinge on one putt. Losing $40 is one thing, but a second Claret Jug? Even the Big Easy would have sleepless nights over that.

TEE-OFF TIMES FOR FIRST AND SECOND ROUNDS

(GB or Irl unless stated) (*denotes amateurs)

0630 and 1126 Iain Pyman, Hennie Otto (SA), Christopher Smith

0641 and 1137 David Lynn, Steve Flresch (US), Gary Emerson

0652 and 1148 Stewart Cink (US), Peter Lonard (Aus), S K Ho (S Kor)

0703 and 1159 Gary Evans, Fred Funk (US), Stephen Leaney (Aus)

0714 and 1210 Tom Watson (US), Sandy Lyle, Fred Couples (US)

0725 and 1221 Angel Cabrera (Arg), Charles Howell (US), Phillip Price

0736 and 1232 Davis Love (US), Darren Clarke, Shingo Katayama (Japan)

0747 and 1243 Jesper Parnevik (Swe), Peter O'Malley (Aus), Duffy Waldorf (US)

0758 and 1254 Mike Weir (Can), *Gary Wolstenholme, Mark O'Meara

0809 and 1305 Robert Allenby (Aus), Katsuyoshi Tomori (Japan), Hal Sutton (US)

0820 and 1316 Thomas Levet (Fr), Retief Goosen (SA), David Duval

0831 and 1327 Hideto Tanihara (Japan), Jerry Kelly (US), Rory Sabbatini (SA)

0842 and 1338 Justin Leonard (US), Greg Norman (Aus), Jose Maria Olazabal (Sp)

0858 and 1354 Toru Taniguchi (Japan), Mathias Gronberg (Swe), Tom Byrum (US)

0909 and 1405 Sergio Garcia (Sp), Tiger Woods (US), Luke Donald

0920 and 1416 Kenny Perry (US), Padraig Harrington, Stuart Appleby (Aus)

0931 and 1427 Ian Poulter, Corey Pavin, David Smail (NZ)

0942 and 1438 Nick Faldo, Tom Lehman (US), Thomas Bjorn (Den)

0953 and 1449 Skip Kendall (US), Brian Davis, Raphael Jacquelin (Fr)

1004 and 1500 Chris Riley (US), Niclas Fasth (Swe), Greg Owen

1015 and 1511 Chad Campbell (US), Mark Roe, Mark Smith

1026 and 1522 Anders Hansen (Den), Jyoti Randhawa (Ind), John Rollins (US)

1037 and 1533 Todd Hamilton (US), Malcolm Mackenzie, Steen Tinning (Den)

1048 and 1544 Marco Ruiz (Par), Cliff Kresge (US), Robert Coles

1059 and 1555 Mark Foster, Cameron Percy (Aus), Paul Wesselingh

1110 and 1606 Euan Little, Peter Fowler (Aus), Marten Olander (Swe)

1126 and 0630 Gary Murphy, Rolf Muntz (Neth), Simon Wakefield

1137 and 0641 Ian Woosnam, Dudley Hart, *Scott Godfrey

1148 and 0652 Chris Smith (US), Mark McNulty (Zim), Bradley Dredge

1159 and 0703 Mark Calcavecchia (US), K J Choi (SKor), Fredrik Jacobson (Swe)

1210 and 0714 Colin Montgomerie, Brad Faxon (US), Steve Elkington (Aus)

1221 and 0725 Jay Haas (US), Eduardo Romero (Arg), Craig Parry (Aus)

1232 and 0736 Vijay Singh (Fiji), Rich Beem (US), John Daly (US)

1243 and 0747 Jeff Sluman (US), Noboru Sagai (Japan), Alastair Forsyth

1254 and 0758 Phil Mickelson (US), Paul Lawrie, Adam Scott (Aus)

1305 and 0809 Michael Campbell (NZ), Hirofumi Miyase (Japan), Scott McCarron (US)

1316 and 0820 Nick Price (Zim), *Ricky Barnes (US), Justin Rose

1327 and 0832 Len Mattiace (US), Ignacio Garrido (Sp), Jose Coceres (Arg)

1338 and 0842 Chris Di Marco (US), Nobuhito Sato (Japan), Lee Westwood

1354 and 0858 Shigeki Maruyama (Japan), Ernie Els (SA), David Toms (US)

1405 and 0909 Paul Azinger (US), Craig Perks (NZ), Charl Schwartzel (SA)

1416 and 0920 Jim Furyk (US), Trevor Immelman (SA), Paul Casey

1427 and 0931 Scott Verplank (US), Paul McGinley, Nick O'Hern (Aus)

1438 and 0942 Bob Estes (US), Bernhard Langer (Ger), Lee Janzen (US)

1449 and 0953 JL Lewis (US), David Howell, Robert-Jan Derksen (Neth)

1500 and 1004 Pierre Fulke (Swe), Ben Curtis (US), Anthony Wall

1511 and 1015 Philip Golding, Ben Crane (US), Jarrod Moseley (Aus)

1522 and 1026 Jonathan Kaye (US), Soren Hansen (Den), Steven Bowditch (Aus)

1533 and 1037 Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Andrew George, Andrew Raitt

1544 and 1048 Joe Durant (US), Kenneth Ferrie, Markus Brier (Aut)

1555 and 1059 Adam Mednick (Swe), Andrew Oldcorn, Adam Le Vesconte (Aus)

1606 and 1110 Matthew Goggin (Aus), Anthony Sproston, Charles Challen

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