ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Only a month ago, Ernie Els ran out of accolades for the way Tiger Woods had beaten him again, this time by a record 15 strokes in the U.S. Open.
On Thursday, a 6-under 66 in the first round at St. Andrews said it all -- the Big Easy is determined to make the British Open anything but that for Woods.
''If he beats me by 15 from now, there should be an inquiry,'' Els said.
Coming off his first victory in 18 months, Ernie Els is determined to prove he got his nickname for that graceful swing and carefree attitude, not as Woods' favorite runner-up.
He spent the morning watching TV coverage of the Open, hoping to get an idea of how the Old Course was playing and where the pins were tucked.
What he saw was Woods shooting a 67, tied for the early lead with Steve Flesch and in fast pursuit of the career Grand Slam.
''When you see Tiger at 5 under and you haven't even started, you know you've got your work cut out for you,'' Els said.
The 30-year-old South African was up to the task.
Riding his experience from eight Dunhill Cups at St. Andrews, Els made the last of his eight birdies on one of the most difficult holes in golf -- the infamous Road Hole -- for a one-stroke lead over Woods and Steve Flesch.
''You need a good, solid opening round to contend,'' said Els, an 18-hole leader for the first time since the 1997 Buick Classic. He wasn't alone.
To keep the Old Course from turning into a baked-out linksland, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club poured water on the fairways and greens overnight. Along with only a gentle breeze off the North Sea, storied St. Andrews yielded 50 rounds under par.
Woods, trying to become only the fifth player -- and youngest at 24 -- to win all four major championships, extended his amazing run to 44 consecutive holes in majors without a bogey.
''Even par or better is going to be a good start,'' Woods said after his 20th consecutive round at par or better.
Two strokes behind Els at 68 was a group that included '96 British Open champion Tom Lehman and 20-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia. Notah Begay, who was 7 under before a Jean Van de Velde moment on the 17th, and Jim Furyk were among those at 69.
Six players who have won majors, including three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo, were at 70, along with David Duval.
''It's a long championship,'' Woods said, in no hurry to make history.
Els has been part of the wrong kind of history lately.
Three times this year alone -- and five times in his career -- Els has finished second to Woods, more than any other player. The most notorious came last month in the U.S. Open, when Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez were distance runners-up at Pebble Beach.
''Should I talk about Tiger again? Come on guys,'' he said. ''I just shot 66.''
Starting late in the afternoon, when the overnight water had evaporated and dust was flying with every iron struck off the crusty fairways, Els picked up four birdies on the first seven holes, all of which played downwind.
He made birdie on the two shortest holes at St. Andrews, and both par 5s. But the most impressive came at No. 17, which requires a tee shot over part of the Old Course Hotel and an approach to a rock-hard green protected by a bunker with a face 8 feet high.
After a perfect drive, he hit a 6-iron to 10 feet for one of only four birdies at the Road Hole in the opening round.
''If you make four 4s there this week, you have to be the happiest man,'' Els said.
Woods wasn't complaining, either.
For most of the day, it appeared as though the scenery was the only thing that had changed from the last major championship.
Carmel Bay or St. Andrews Bay? Penal rough or pot bunkers? Target golf or links golf? None of that made a difference to Woods, who has won two of the last three majors and has contended in the last seven.
''You're accustomed to seeing his name up there on the leaderboard,'' Flesch said. ''He doesn't play poorly very often.''
Despite a few loose swings in the opening holes, Woods never lost his patience. He was plodding along with pars -- no birdie putt shorter than 35 feet over the first eight holes -- when he watched a threesome walk up the adjacent 10th fairway.
All of them -- including 64-year-old Bob Charles -- were under par. At that point, Woods was six strokes off the lead.
Seven holes later, Woods pointed his index finger at the cup as his fifth birdie fell, and his name was posted once again atop the board.
Just like Els, he birdied the two short holes -- No. 10 at 379 yards and No. 12 at 314 yards -- and saved his best for the Road Hole.
Woods appeared to be in trouble on the 17th when he missed the fairway to the left. Standing shin-high in rough, he gouged out a shot long enough to find the short grass, but not so far that it brought the bunker into play.
He saved his par with a 100-foot putt that hopped along and slowed near the hole.
''It was a good shot,'' Woods said, when asked why his caddie was applauding.
The only cheers that matter will come Sunday afternoon, and there is plenty of work left for Els, Woods and everyone else.
Els won at Loch Lomond last week and is confident he can keep it going. He also knows what to expect.
''When I play well, I'm probably going to play with Tiger somewhere this week, because he plays at that level just about every week,'' he said.
Now if Els can only find a different outcome.
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