GULLANE, Scotland -- The complaint all year was that Tiger Woods has no challengers. Halfway through the British Open, he has about three dozen of them.
Some of them are familiar.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els had a 5-under 66 in a steady drizzle Friday at Muirfield and was among five players tied for the lead, the biggest 36-hole logjam at a major championship in 30 years.
Some of them are not.
The top 16 players through two rounds come from 11 countries, ranging from France (Thomas Levet) to Trinidad (Stephen Ames).
What they all shared in common after a wet and wild day on the East Lothian links was a realistic chance at winning the silver claret jug and getting in Woods' way of a Grand Slam.
"Anytime you're near the lead in a major championship, you must be happy," Woods said after a bogey-free 68 left him only two strokes out of the lead.
If that's the case, there were smiles galore on a dreary day in Scotland.
Even from Colin Montgomerie.
The scowling Scot had a 64, the best round of the tournament, and was among 37 players within five strokes of the lead.
"Over the weekend, things might get a little tighter," Els said.
The Big Easy had a 66 and shared the lead with Padraig Harrington (67), Shigeki Maruyama (68), Duffy Waldorf (69) and Bob Tway (67). They were at 136.
Another stroke back was 49-year-old Des Smyth of Ireland (69), Soren Hansen of Denmark (69) and Carl Pettersson of Sweden (70).
Woods was among eight players lurking two strokes behind at 138, perfect position to add the claret jug to the trophies from the Masters and U.S. Open, which he won earlier this year without this much of a tussle.
Els certainly was pleased with his score on another relatively calm day off the Firth of Forth. Still, he knows it could have been lower, and his comfort margin a little larger.
He birdied six of the first eight holes, had the lowest nine-hole score (29) in the British Open since 1996 and found himself leading by three shots as he stood in the 11th fairway with a wedge in his hand, 130 yards from the hole.
The shot went 144 yards, sailing over the flag and into the rough for his first bogey.
"I got too aggressive," he said. "My blood was pumping there. After making bogey, I knew there was a lot of difficult holes to come, and that was the case."
Another bogey followed on No. 13 when Els found a pot bunker so deep the 6-foot-4 South African couldn't see over the top of the lip. He left his first shot in the bunker, then managed to get up-and-down to limit the damage.
Five pars later, the last one saved by a wedge from 80 yards that stopped 4 feet from the hole, he was still in good shape, tied for the lead going into the weekend at a major.
"I'm challenging for a major championship again," Els said. "I've got an opportunity to achieve one of my goals, and that's to win a claret jug. Obviously, other players would like to win this tournament.
"It's going to be pretty exciting come Sunday."
Now, add another element into the picture.
At 7,034 yards, Muirfield is by far the shortest course of all the major championships this year. The first two days have been nearly perfect for scoring.
And the best anyone could manage was 6 under par.
"If the wind ever blows, it's going to be interesting," Woods said.
That was in the forecast for Saturday, which could help separate the field. As it is, Muirfield is such a complete test of golf that it doesn't favor any particular style, only the players who keep it out of the knee-high rough and treacherous pot bunkers.
"The way Ernie played the first nine, I thought he was going to pull away," Tway said. "If you have some wind blowing, you may see the scores come a little more apart."
Tway was the last player to join the lead when he saved par from the bunker with a 20-foot putt on the final hole. Five players at the top was the most since there was a six-way tie for the lead after two rounds at Pebble Beach in the 1972 U.S. Open.
And it's crowded all the way down to the bottom.
Phil Mickelson had to birdie the 17th hole to avoid missing the cut. He shot a 76 and was at 2-over 144, still only eight strokes behind. David Duval was seven strokes behind at the halfway point last year, and he went on to win by three.
"I'm not about to give up with two rounds to go," Mickelson said.
Sift through all the names, and the wild card in the middle of this race is Woods, who now has gone 26 holes without a bogey and still hasn't had to hit from any of the 148 bunkers at Muirfield.
While Els' momentum slowed with a bogey, Woods actually gained some by making a par on No. 10, the only time he was in serious danger Friday.
From the deep hay left of the fairway on the 475-yard hole, the best he could do was to chop it out some 15 yards to the fairway. He hit his approach into 18 feet, then made an uphill putt that had nearly a foot of break.
"I hadn't hit too many bad shots the entire front nine, and all of a sudden I'm looking at dropping a shot," Woods said. "That was the only hole I did that on. I wanted to continue the momentum."
He did that, and crept even closer to the leaders on the par-5 17th from more thick grass on a knoll to the right of the green. The ball wound up on the fringe, and Woods holed the 15-footer for birdie to get to 138.
Woods anywhere near the lead going into the weekend at a major is cause for concern. The difference this week is that there are so many other players, any number of which could produce a great round in the next two days.
The favorite among the Scottish gallery is Montgomerie, whose 64 made them take their hands off their umbrellas for rousing applause - that equates to a frenzy compared with U.S. majors.
"I know I can win," said Montgomerie, who never has in a major. "I've never been frightened of winning, ever."
He was in the group with Woods at 138, along with Thomas Bjorn and a pair of 45-year-old major champions, Nick Price and Mark O'Meara.
Having won seven of the last 11 majors, Woods remains a betting favorite. Still, the week at Muirfield has played out just as many expected.
Woods was in contention, and he had plenty of company.
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