Wild Day at Troon for Big Easy

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TROON, Scotland -- A shot he thought was short turned out to be an ace. Then, with a chance to grab a share of the lead, Ernie Els turned a simple lie in the bunker into a big mess.

Like everyone else, Els played 18 holes in the opening round of the British Open.
 
When he left the course Thursday, though, you couldn't blame him for thinking only about two par-3s.
 
At the first, the famed Postage Stamp eighth, he was perfect. At the second, the long 17th into the wind, he looked more like a weekend hacker.
 
'From such a highlight on eight to such a low light on 17, it's amazing,' Els said.

Opening his bid to unseat Tiger Woods as the top player in the world this week, Els got the fans roaring Thursday morning when his wedge shot found the cup on the famed Postage Stamp hole. The Big Easy was pretty excited himself, smiling broadly and waving.
 
The smile was gone on the 17th when Els took two shots to get out of a greenside bunker and had to rally to salvage a double bogey on his way to an opening 2-under 69 that left him three shots off the lead.

'From really nowhere I made double bogey, so that's quite disappointing,' Els said.

Els was likely not the only one emotional about his round. One bettor liked his chances so much he wagered 62,500 British pounds on Els winning the Open.

At 8-1 odds at Ladbrokes betting house in London, that works out to 500,000 pounds, or nearly a million dollars, if Els wins.

'Him or her has a lot of money to wager,' Els said. 'But I'm feeling good about this week and I'm glad I've got fans or a betting man that's got a lot of confidence in me.'
 
Coming into Troon, Els had already given fans enough reasons to think hemight win his second Open title in three years. His game is sharp and the confidence he sometimes lacked is peaking after barely losing to Phil Mickelson in the Masters and playing in the final group of the U.S. Open.

He's got more at stake than just getting his name on the claret jug for the second time in this Open. If Els wins and Woods finishes worse than 16th, Els would supplant him as the No. 1 player in the world rankings.

That certainly seemed a possibility when his wedge spun into the hole at the 123-yard Postage Stamp, named because of the tiny green that sits on a mound next to the Firth of Clyde, surrounded by deep pot bunkers.

'That was beautiful, I'll tell you,' Els said.

Els was 1 under when he arrived at the hole, and 3 under when he left. If he hadn't listened to his caddie, though, he may have overshot the green entirely.

A slight breeze was in his face when caddie Ricci Roberts talked Els into hitting a wedge instead of the 9-iron he was thinking about.

'I hit it really solid, and as I hit it, I was just saying to the ball, `Get up, get up, get up'' Els said. 'And it bounced nice and hard and it had a lot of check on it.'

The ball actually bounced three times, then spun sideways and backwards into the hole. It was the seventh ace of Els' tournament career, and second in a major championship.

Els got to 4 under with a birdie from 15 feet on the 11th hole and seemed assured to be among the leaders when his 5-iron on the 222-yard 17th went into the left greenside bunker. Els had a bit of a downhill lie in the bunker, but wasn't overly concerned about getting it over the steep face.

His first try, though, hit the face and bounced back in the sand. With an even more difficult shot this time, he played it just short of the front of the green and two-putted from there for a double bogey.

'It wasn't the most difficult shot I've ever had in my life and I just messed it up,' he said. 'I thinned it into the bank in front of me and I tried to get it out, which I did, and made five.'
 
A five and a one makes six, of course, meaning the highs and lows of the two par-3s evened themselves out. Els could have made two pars on the holes, but then he wouldn't have something to talk about.
 
He finished the first day as a looming presence only three shots off the lead. A proven contender and winner, he did nothing to harm his chances to win this Open title.
 
Still, there was plenty of time to ponder what might have been as Els waits for his afternoon tee time Friday.

'I don't know what I was thinking there,' he said. 'I've had a lot tougher shots than that in my life and I just messed it up this time.'
 
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