GULLANE, Scotland -- The waiter at the Peking restaurant smack in the middle of the tiny town of Haddington was stuck. He wanted to place a few pounds on the British Open, but wasn't going to bet on Tiger Woods at short odds.
At the Ladbrokes betting parlor a couple of shops away, Woods was a 7-4 favorite to win his third straight major. British oddsmakers also figure it will be easier for Woods to win two tournaments to complete the Grand Slam this year than for someone to beat him at Muirfield.
The bookies might have made those numbers even lower, if they listened carefully to the 155 players who will chase Woods this week.
It's not exactly a group brimming with confidence. Their best hope might be that Woods eats some bad Scottish Haggis before Sunday.
That said, here's a look at the pretenders to Tiger's next crown:
- PHIL MICKELSON (10-1). The obvious choice since he's the world's No. 2 player and has finished 2-3-2 in the last three majors. But he's played 40 majors in his career and won exactly none. And his record at the British Open is abysmal, missing five cuts in 12 tries and only finishing in the top 10 once.
Worse, Mickelson's mindset seems to fluctuate as wildly from major to major as some of the spectacular recovery shots he's always attempting. The theme of this week is that Mickelson is golf's thinking man, his mind always churning on and off the course.
That's fine when you're discussing the black hole in the universe over a few drinks. But it can get a little distracting if you're preoccupied with such thoughts while trying to chase Woods down the stretch in the British Open.
Quotable: "It doesn't make me more despondent because what I've found is it is much easier to deal with finishing second or third than it is dealing with 25th or 30th and not having a chance to win."
- ERNIE ELS (16-1). A few years ago these would have seemed like long odds for a guy who has won two U.S. Opens and has one of the sweetest swings and easiest demeanors in golf.
That was then, and this is now. Els seems befuddled by Woods since finishing second to him in three majors in 2000. He was last seen chasing Woods in the Masters a few months ago, where his chances evaporated when he hit into the trees on the 14th hole on Sunday.
Els ended up making a dreaded snowman, a triple-bogey 8 that killed what little chance he had.
Quotable: "When I've played well, Tiger still has beaten me. What do you do?"
- SERGIO GARCIA (20-1). He's been touted as Tiger's rival ever since he made a run at Woods in the PGA Championship at Medinah at the age of 19. Unfortunately, he's got some issues with waggles and still has some growing up to do.
In an almost laughable sequence in the final round of the U.S. Open, Garcia looked like a little kid trying to curry favor with Woods on the third hole when he urged Tiger's putt toward the hole, then started talking to him.
Woods, who refused to watch Garcia's incessant waggles all day, ignored his young challenger's efforts to be friends. On the next hole, when Garcia scurried down into a fairway bunker to retrieve Woods' divot as if he were his caddie, Tiger was already long gone, marching toward the green.
Quotable: "There's no doubt that he's taken some majors out of other players, but so has Nicklaus. We just have to keep trying and be happy with what you have."
- DAVIS LOVE III (25-1). Thankfully for Love, he's not likely to hear any cheers of "You da man" this week from respectful Scottish golf fans. That wasn't the case in Chicago a few weeks ago, when the notoriously thin-skinned Love took a break from trying to win the tournament to confront fans for being a bit too boisterous.
If Love should somehow deny Woods his bid for the Grand Slam, it wouldn't be his only historical link to Woods. Love was the victim when Woods won his first tournament as a pro, beating Love in a one-hole playoff in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational.
Quotable: "If Tiger played putt-putt he would still be the favorite."
- COLIN MONTGOMERIE (33-1). He's the local favorite, but Montgomerie may have blown his best chance to win his first major championship last year when he was one shot off the lead going into the final round of the Open and Woods was out of contention.
The Scotsman is back, this time 2 1/2 stone lighter - that's 35 pounds for non-Brits. But even Monty doesn't seem too confident about his chances this week.
Quotable: "Well, we hope Tiger doesn't perform, for one, and then we all will have an opportunity."
- DAVID DUVAL (33-1). He's the defending champion, but that's about all you can say about Duval's chances this week. Burdened by bad swing thoughts, he's been playing poorly, missing cuts in both the Masters and U.S. Open.
Duval will concede that Woods has put his mind to the game better than most. He won't concede that Woods is simply more talented than anyone else.
Quotable: "I think if Tiger Woods is playing his best and other players are playing their best, I don't think there is as big of a difference between them as everyone thinks there is."
- DARREN CLARKE (40-1). Here's a rarity. Clarke has actually beaten Woods head-to-head, in the finals of the 2000 World Match Play Championship.
He's not exactly bragging, but Clarke thinks he can beat Woods at Muirfield, even though he shot 74-74 when paired with him last month in the first two rounds of the U.S. Open.
Quotable: "You know he's going to be the guy to beat. But a lot of guys are becoming so obsessed by it and it's to their detriment. You have to beat the golf course, not Tiger."
- EVERYONE ELSE. John Daly is 100-1, as is Greg Norman. But the longest odds may be on Tom Whitehouse, who made it to the Open only after Kenny Perry withdrew Tuesday night.
Whitehouse is lucky. He doesn't have to concern himself with thoughts of beating Woods. At the age of 22, the British player is just happy to be in his first Open.
"It is more than a dream come true. I have always dreamed of playing in the Open," Whitehouse said. "My mum is coming up today and my dad will be following this evening, but mum couldn't wait."
Neither can Woods, for Sunday, when he'll likely pick up another claret jug at the expense of this motley group of challengers.
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