Tiger the arch trespasser in Els' territory

Rare shadows of uncertainty over Woods a stark contrast to the confidence of his closest rival on a course he adores
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It has been a strange build-up to the 132nd Open Championship. Tiger Woods was not playing golf in Ireland but Bill Clinton was. Others missed the rain at Loch Lomond to head for the links, but who was the big name playing at Royal St George's on Thursday? None other than the Duke of York. He is the captain-elect of the Royal and Ancient, so it was more business than pleasure, obviously. And a mysterious object has been seen making its way around the Kent coast. Not a Shark, not a Tiger, just a splodge of pink algae.

It has also been a strange year in the Majors so far. Mike Weir was the gritty Canadian who beat Len Mattiace in a play-off at the Masters, while Jim Furyk, he of the unorthodox but effective swing, was an equally worthy champion at the US Open. But if a certain sparkle has been missing, St George's could provide it. The Sandwich course is in prime condition. With relatively little rain in Kent this year, it is playing firm and fast, and while the rough is undoubtedly long, it is not nearly as juicy as at Carnoustie four years ago.

It is 10 years since The Open last headed to the south-east coast, and what a spectacular there was then. Ernie Els became the first player to score four rounds in the 60s in The Open, but Greg Norman matched him and won his second Open title after a titanic battle with Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer. Corey Pavin, Nick Price, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart were all up there, the leaderboard reading like the world rankings.

If something similar was to occur this time then a showdown between Woods and Els is just what the golfing world has been waiting for. When their names have been close to the top of a Major leaderboard, it tends to have been when Tiger has run away with the show, as at the US Open and The Open in 2000.

Rather than being paired together for the first two days, as they were at Olympia Fields, it is over the weekend that we want to see them head to head. Els, after threatening to blow his chance and then winning in extra time, memorably lifted the claret jug last year at Muirfield. He is loath to return the trophy.

His advantage over Woods is that he knows the course. "I liked it straight away when I came here," the world No 2 said. "It's a great golf course, definitely one of my favourites in the world. I feel like my game is really close to where it was when I was winning tournaments at the start of the season, and these next two or three months will be a good time to get back into the winning habit again."

Woods will have to do all his research this week. "I don't know anything about it," he said of St George's. "Just that they have a lot of blind holes and that's about it."

It is a course that takes some getting to know. "It is very traditional links golf," said Padraig Harrington. "Of all the Open courses, this will suit the guys who have been brought up playing links golf. It is old-time stuff, undulating fairways with a lot of run and bounce."

Woods will be motivated by two things: not holding a Major title for the first time in four years; and getting his own back on a championship where he shot an 81, his worst score as a professional, in the storm that hit the third round at Muirfield last year. Winning a second Open would make him only the second player, after Jack Nicklaus, to do the career grand slam twice.

The 27-year-old won his fourth title of the year at the Western Open last Sunday, but his decision to stay at home in Orlando to practise rather than make his usual trip to Ireland brought renewed speculation that the knee that was operated on last December is still troubling him.

Like a certain government, Woods finds it easier to deny an accusation far stronger than that being levelled at him. Of course, he was not in a slump, but nor did his play in the Masters and the US Open exude his usual authority, or bear much resemblance to his pronouncements that everything was fine, thank you. Perhaps Woods has been caught between trying to alter his swing to ease the stresses on his left knee, and not being able to practise and play as much as he would like to ingrain those changes.

"It's certainly a shot of confidence, there's no doubt about it," Woods said of his win on Sunday. "Any time you win you've got to feel pretty good about it. The things I've been working on are starting to come together, and they came together this week more so than they did at Westchester, and I hope they'll come together more so at The Open than they did this week."

If that is not an overwhelming endorsement, perhaps it is about time a European slipped in where the likes of Goosen, Weir and Furyk have succeeded when the Tiger has failed to triumph. Harrington and Sergio Garcia should contend, while Paul Lawrie, the last European to win a Major - at Carnoustie in 1999 - is a links specialist and is looking for more respect. It would be nice to see young pups like Justin Rose and Paul Casey involved.

Two other Europeans who stand out as potential winners are Darren Clarke and Jose Maria Olazabal. Clarke is another who grew up on links golf, and has been driving the ball superbly all year.

Olazabal has completely changed his game around, and it is now his putting that needs a boost. He is a better driver than ever, and that can only help his chances. The Spaniard never lacks for inspiration at The Open, having won the British Amateur, the British Youths and the British Boys titles. He just needs to avoid the pink algae.