The British Open got under way yesterday with punters in the betting-mad UK pushing Tiger Woods into near unbackable favoritism to claim the claret jug.
Fully recovered from the knee surgery that kept him out of last year’s Open, Woods was the overwhelming choice to capture his 15th major championship when play began at historic Turnberry.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington was down the list in betting despite having won the past two Opens — a reflection on his ordinary recent form.
Woods birdied the second hole, but an errant tee shot at No. 3 led to his first bogey — and first fit of anger. He turned his back, swung the club in disgust and mumbled something under his breath.
From the matted-down rough left of the fairway, Woods caught a flyer, his ball rocketing through the green. A poor chip left him 30 feet from the cup, and the par-saving putt came up well short.
One of Woods’ playing partners, England’s Lee Westwood, was off to the best start. He opened with three straight birdies to grab the early lead. Also in the threesome: 17-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa, making for a group that was trailed by a huge throng of fans and a media contingent nearly as large.
A brilliant tee shot at the par-3 fourth gave Westwood a shot at four straight birdies, but a 5-foot putt slid by the hole.
Fifty-nine-year-old Tom Watson, who won the epic “Duel in the Sun” over Jack Nicklaus when the Open first came to Turnberry in 1977, birdied two of the first three holes to put his name near the top. Also at 2 under were 1989 Open champion Mark Calcavecchia, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, American Steve Stricker and Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who rolled in a long eagle at No. 7.
Woods was an overwhelming 2-1 favorite — no one else was better than Garcia at 15-1 — and the world’s No. 1 player didn’t even have to contend with longtime rival Phil Mickelson, who missed the Open for the first time since 1993 to deal with more important matters: His wife and his mother were recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Harrington has not won a Tour-sanctioned event since capturing his third major title — and second in a row — at the PGA Championship in Oakland Hills last August. The Irishman has been tinkering with his swing, believing the potential long-term gains negate any short-term setbacks.
Harrington wasn’t too concerned about becoming the first player since Peter Thomson from 1954 to 1956 to win the claret jug three straight times. But the two-time defending champ does take a different mindset into the majors, knowing that’s where a player’s legacy is made.
“It’s all about the majors,” he said. “They’re all very special. I want to get as many of these as I can.”
He’ll have to get by Woods this time.