Otto sets pace as favourites lose their way

Journeyman South African heads field by one stroke after 68 as world No 1 makes ignominious start to blustery championship
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The Independent Online

Like Ernie Els, Hendrik Johannes Otto, known simply as Hennie, is South African and has a wife called Liezl. Any resemblance with the defending Open champion ends there, but it was Otto who topped the leaderboard all day in the first round of the 132nd Open Championship. Otto went out in the first threeball of the morning at 6.30am and, despite a bogey at the last hole, his target of 68, three under par, was not surpassed.

There was rain first thing, in contrast to the scorching temperatures of the practice days, but it was the wind that caused havoc with the majority of the field. The afternoon starters had the worst of it, with gusts up to 35mph, but all day it was out of the south-west, a direction not experienced in practice.

Even the best struggled. Els did not want to hand back the Claret Jug but his fine form from Loch Lomond, where he won the Scottish Open last week, disappeared with a 78, seven over and 10 behind Otto.

Tiger Woods, the world No 1 and the favourite as always, although at odds that have not been seen since he won his first major at the Masters in 1997, had birdies at two of the last four holes for a 73. By the end of the day, two over par was no disgrace. Otto led by one from Greg Norman and Davis Love, with Fredrik Jacobson and S K Ho, from South Korea, the only other men under par.

There had been an ignominious start for the Tiger when he pushed his drive into the right rough and lost the ball. The buggy driver who returned him to the tee would have been wise not to mention that Jerry Kelly had earlier taken an 11. Woods pushed his next drive again and ended up with a triple-bogey seven.

Woods has not been at his best on the opening day of either of the preceding majors this year, but once again he battled away to trail only by five strokes. Els had never scored worse than 76 in the Open, even during the storm in the third round at Muirfield last year.

"The conditions weren't as tough as that," Els said, "but that day my short game helped me hang in there. Today my putting let me down. It was difficult to stay steady over the putts. I didn't feel comfortable on the greens." He took three putts at the first from 40 feet, and three-stabbed twice more on the front nine.

At the 420-yard fifth, which was playing downwind, he drove pin high, but chipped poorly and could only make a par. It is a rare day for the South African when he cannot make a birdie. He had an opening 79 at the Masters, but fought back with a 66 and eventually finished sixth.

"I need something like that again tomorrow," Els said. "I've got a lot of work to do but if I can get it back to level par by Sunday, we'll see what happens."

Els's 27-year-old compatriot from Johannesburg had risen at 4am for the earliest starting time ever in the Open. Otto may still have been waking up for he had to hole a long putt at the fourth to save going two over. But he made five birdies around the turn, having stolen Els's usual putting form by making three putts from over 25 feet. He bogeyed the last, but so did many who followed.

Otto's best result of the season so far was a 17th in the South African Open at the start of the year. His career may have been low-key up to now, but it has also been eventful. Almost three years ago he had to have an operation on his back after suffering a lumbar decompression. "The doctors said anything could have caused it, picking up a suitcase or a golf bag or whatever," he said.

"I had four months off and thought I was never going to be able to play again. But the doctors said there was no need to worry. There was some scarring for a few months, but now there are no complaints."

Otto started his sporting career as a promising rugby player and could have represented his country at under-23 level as a scrum-half. But the final trial for the team coincided with a golf tournament and he chose to stick with the golf. "I wanted to play rugby," he said. "But golf was where the money is. Not many people make it in rugby. You have to be a superstar and you have to be six foot four. I'm only five foot seven."

Though Otto worked briefly in 2000 with Jos Vantisphout, the sports psychologist who helped Els to become an Open champion, he sometimes struggled to keep his temper under control. The most outrageous example of him losing it came after he shot an 80 and missed the cut in the 2001 South African Masters.

Otto went down to a secluded riverbank on his own and, one by one, he took each club out of his bag, smashed it over his knee and threw it in the water. He escaped a fine from the South African Tour because the incident did not occur during a round or in public. A month later he was disqualified for signing for a wrong score after not realising he had incurred a two-stroke penalty for infringing a local rule.

"I'm much calmer now," Otto said. "My attitude has changed. I'm still a bit edgy sometimes but that's changed a lot." His improved performances have led to him taking better care of his tools. "I'm playing with better clubs." He will want to avoid the fate of Rod Pampling, a Kiwi who became the first man to miss the cut after leading on the first day at Carnoustie in 1999.

Gary Evans, still remembered for his dramatic final round at Muirfield, led the home players on level par. The leaderboard was an eclectic mix. Norman, the 1993 champion here, was only playing his third tournament of the year. Love warmed up for the Open in Ireland, a trip Woods skipped this year. Jacobson, the promising Swede, was the only player not to drop a shot to par.

And who Ho? The 29-year-old plays in Japan and has two victories in his career. He practised with his better known countryman, K J Choi, and got a putting tip from his instructor in America which proved fruitful. "Before coming here, I only wanted to learn from the top players," he said. "But if I can play like I did today and until Sunday, I am going to be so nervous."

EARLY LEADERS

68

Hennie Otto (SA)

69

Davis Love III (US)

Greg Norman (Aus)

70

S K Ho (S Kor)

F Jacobson (Swe)

71

F Couples (US)

G Evans (GB)

M Gronberg (Swe)

C Howell III (US)

T Levet (France)

S McCarron (US)

T Watson (US)

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