Els wrestles initiative away from Woods

Most players hope to do well in any particular tournament. Some expect to do well. Fewer actually do so. Tiger Woods always seems to prosper. The world No 1, as hot a favourite as there has ever been, was inevitably in the lead during the first round of the 129th Open Championship over the Old Course. Steve Flesch, a left-handed American, fulfilled the traditional role of surprise entity at the top of the leaderboard by matching Woods' five-under 67.

Most players hope to do well in any particular tournament. Some expect to do well. Fewer actually do so. Tiger Woods always seems to prosper. The world No 1, as hot a favourite as there has ever been, was inevitably in the lead during the first round of the 129th Open Championship over the Old Course. Steve Flesch, a left-handed American, fulfilled the traditional role of surprise entity at the top of the leaderboard by matching Woods' five-under 67.

But late on a golden evening, when rounds were taking over five and a half hours but the wind had died again, Ernie Els claimed a one-stroke lead with a 66. The South African, winner at Loch Lomond last week, was the best bet to chase the Tiger this week. He was runner-up in each of the first two majors of the year, although in the 100th US Open, he trailed Woods by 15 strokes.

Woods led from the start at Pebble Beach after a six-under 65 in the opening round. Although his only appearance since was his worst result of the season - he was 23rd at the Western Open - Woods, who has already won the other three major titles in his short career, again rose to the grand occasion.

"It's tremendous that he can come out at a given tournament and play the golf he has to play," said Padraig Harrington. "He is way ahead of everybody else. He is up there again. It is extraordinary stuff. The pressure is on him every week but he delivers the goods."

Els, a laid-back character who has tried to make his major preparation more intense after failing to add to his two US Open titles, did likewise by going to the turn in 33. He birdied the 10th, gave it back at the next but birdied the 12th, the 14th and, after a superb approach to eight feet, the 17th.

Woods, who did not drop a shot, crept only slowly up the leaderboard. He parred the first eight holes, then reeled off five birdies in seven holes. His position also improved as others dropped shots over the closing holes, the hardest stretch of the course with the wind into from the left, off St Andrews Bay.

The Old Course does not unleash its most fiendish challenge until the Road Hole and Notah Begay found a new way of wrecking his scorecard at the 17th. He avoided the road, and the Road Bunker but went into the Swilken Burn with his third shot.

Begay, winner of two tournaments in America in the past month, had been in the rough off the tee, from where Woods would later blast his second into the green and save par. Like Jean Van de Velde at the 72nd at Carnoustie, Begay thought about playing the ball. Unlike the Frenchman, he did not remove his shoes and socks did indeed get it out before taking three more to hole out. "I knew I could get it out," Begay said. "It was a lot more entertaining than taking a boring drop."

"Good man!" exclaimed Van de Velde, who had a relatively unadventurous 71, when told of Begay's shot. "I am proud of him, definitely. If he didn't take his shoes and socks off, maybe there is something wrong with his feet."

Begay, a Native American who was at Stanford with Woods, suffered a triple-bogey seven and finished with a 69. He led at seven under, as did the Yorkshireman Ian Garbutt, who won a play-off in qualifying to earn his place in the field, before dropping three strokes for a 68.

Flesch and Harrington, fifth at the US Open, topped the leaderboard at six under, the Irishman also finishing with a 68. Sergio Garcia, who missed the cut a year ago at 30 over par, was among those on the same score, as was the 1996 champion, Tom Lehmann.

Though never as strong as the Royal and Ancient hoped, the wind did get up in the afternoon. The early starters had the benefit of beginning in the calm and having the fairways and greens watered overnight. The pin positions were not as difficult as they will be over the weekend but players found the greens "bobbly".

Except for Woods. It was not so much the putts he holed - there was a 12-footer at the ninth and a 10-footer at the 15th for two of the birdies - as the three-putts he avoided thanks to his carefully weighted approach-putting.

He drove the green at both the 10th and 12th before two-putting, at the former from around 50 yards. "You get almost as much satisfaction from a good lag-putt as from holing one," Woods said. "You have to have good touch and feel." His other birdie came at the par-five 14th, where, through the back in two, he almost chipped in for an eagle.

Woods was not concerned with the slow start to his round. "Any time you make eight straight pars at the start of a major championships, I'll take it," he said. "I figured anything in the red numbers was a good start and I accomplished that."

This was Flesch's his first experience of the Open and St Andrews. "It's a whole other way of playing," he said. "It took four practice rounds, but my caddie and I think we have it figured out. On Sunday we were like a couple of blind guys. It's nice that guys with different types of games have a chance here.

"Normally, they make courses longer and longer, which favours the guys who bomb it."

John Daly won here five years ago doing just that. On his return, the "Wild Thing" had a 76, seven strokes better than his opening effort at the US Open, after which he withdrew. Paul Lawrie, last year's winner at Carnoustie, had no intention of doing that but will have to score low today if he is to remain for the weekend.

Lawrie had 41 putts, a career high, including a four-putt and three three-putts in his 78. "It was ridiculous," he said. "None of them was from very long distances." Lawrie's left wrist was hit by a youngster at a clinic on Tuesday but the Scot said: "The wrist was not a factor. It is fine."

Colin Montgomerie twice missed from two feet. "You can't afford to do that," Monty said. "Stupid."

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