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Otto takes early British Open lead; Woods struggles early

SANDWICH, England - Tiger Woods looked like a weekend hacker on the first hole of the British Open.

Trying to snap a four-major losing streak, Woods lost his ball on his very first shot at damp, windy Royal St. George's. He wound up taking a triple-bogey 7, already facing a big deficit in a tournament that had barely started.

South African Hennie Otto was the surprise leader in the clubhouse, shooting a 3-under-par 68 in the first group of the day. Greg Norman, returning to the site of his 1993 British Open victory, was 3 under through eight holes. And 53-year-old Tom Watson was off to another strong start in a major, standing at 3 under with two holes left in the opening round.

But all eyes were on Woods, lacking a major title for the first time since 1999. If the first hole was any indication, that streak will remain intact.

Woods pushed his opening tee shot into the ankle-deep rough along the right side of the fairway. Even though about 20 people scoured the grass in search of the ball, it never turned up during the five-minute search allowed under the rules.

When the time limit expired, Woods pulled his driver out of the bag again, unleashed an expletive and hopped in a cart for the long, lonely ride back to the tee.

His next shot - actually, his third after taking a one-stroke penalty - wasn't much better, sailing into the same rough where marshals were still looking for the first ball.

This time, Woods didn't have any trouble locating the ball, but all he could do was hack it through the fairway, winding up near some television cables left of the fairway.

Woods finally reached the green with a wedge, but an 18-foot putt came up short. He tapped in for a triple-bogey are walked off the green muttering to himself.

Woods managed to settle himself, rolling in a 6-footer for birdie at No. 4. He was 2 over through seven holes.

Ernie Els, hoping to become the first repeat winner at the British in 20 years, was scheduled to tee off in the afternoon. He'll find conditions more customary for this event - overnight rains softened the grass, which baked under a sweltering sun earlier in the week.

Norman certainly feels comfortable at Royal St. George's, where he captured the British a decade ago by shooting a final-round 64. The 48-year-old Shark hasn't won a tournament since 1998 and back problems have limited him to just two PGA Tour events this year.

But he was feeling no pain as play began Thursday, making an eagle at No. 4 to surge to the top of the leaderboard.

Watson, the five-time British champion and last back-to-back winner, rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt at No. 1. He picked up another birdie at the par-5 fourth, chipping to 4 feet from behind the green and making the putt.

Not bad for a guy who has made the British cut only once in the last five years.

Last month, Watson shot a 65 in the first round of the U.S. Open, an especially compelling story because his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, has been diagnosed with deadly Lou Gehrig's disease.

Edwards did not make the trip to England with Watson after helping him to consecutive second-place finishes in the U.S. Senior Open and Senior Players Championship.

If Watson's early play was a surprise, Otto's start was shocking. He's never won in four years on the PGA European Tour; his best finish this year is a tie for 17th in the South African Open.

''You've got to relax and take what the course gives you,'' said Otto, who teed off at 6:30 in the morning.

This course near the English Channel also showed plenty of bite. Just ask Jerry Kelly, who took an 11 on the first hole.

The American yanked his tee shot into the left rough, where his second attempt to get it out flew into the tall grass on the right side. From there, he hacked at the ball four times without success, finally taking a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie.

After the drop, Kelly's ninth shot flew over the green, then he chipped to 15 feet. He rolled in the putt for 11, drawing a big cheer from the crowd.

''Go get 'em, Jerry!'' someone yelled.

Kelly smirked and said quietly, ''Yeah.''

Woods hasn't won a major since his U.S. Open victory at Bethpage Black 13 months ago, but it's not as if the guy was struggling. In his last tournament, he blew away the field in the Western Open for his fourth victory of the year.

Els, who beat three others in a playoff to win at Muirfield last year, is coming off a victory last week in the Scottish Open. He'll try to match Watson, who won the last of his British titles in 1982-83.

Woods, meanwhile, was trying to join Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win the career Grand Slam at least twice.

Woods was playing in a threesome that also included Spain's Sergio Garcia, who lost to the world's best player by one stroke in a memorable PGA Championship four years ago and has been chasing him ever since.

Garcia was asked which players might have an advantage on the barren links near the English Channel, a striking change from the lush courses of the PGA Tour. The Spaniard mentioned Els, Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie and Justin Rose.

And Woods?

''Yeah, yeah. Definitely,'' Garcia replied. ''I wouldn't rate him as the top ones on my list on these kind of courses, but he can definitely play. There's no doubt about that.''