GULLANE, Scotland - From morning until night, the leaders of the 131st British Open tried to distance themselves from Tiger Woods.
First it was Nick Price. Then it was Carl Pettersson and Des Smyth. And, finally, it was Ernie Els.
For each run of birdies they made, Muirfield reeled them back in. Price got to 6-under with three birdies on the first five holes. Pettersson and Smyth also got to 6-under later in the day. And Els got to 8-under after making seven birdies for a 29 on the front nine, the lowest nine-hole score ever recorded here at the Open.
All of them would falter, allowing Woods to stay in contention for a third straight major championship this year and keeping his chances alive to become the first player in modern history to complete the Grand Slam. Only some unlucky putting by Woods late kept him from taking a share of the lead.
When a gray and rainy day of golf on the Scottish coast was over, Woods found himself only two strokes behind five players - Els, Shigeki Maruyama of Japan, Padraig Harrington of Ireland, former PGA champion Bob Tway and PGA Tour journeyman Duffy Waldorf, who also shared the first-round lead.
Woods knew he could have been there, too, had he not lipped out two short putts on successive holes on the back nine.
The fivesome at the top are at 6-under-par 136 through 36 holes. They lead three European PGA Tour players by one shot - Smyth, 49, of Ireland, Soren Hansen of Denmark and Pettersson, who was born in Sweden but lives in North Carolina.
Woods finished with a 3-under 68. At 4-under 138 for the tournament, Woods is tied with former British Open and two-time PGA champion Nick Price, former British Open and Masters champion Mark O'Meara, Stephen Ames of Canada, Thomas Levet of France, Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, Ian Poulter of England and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, who shot the day's best round, a 7-under 64.
"I've played beautifully the last two days and hit the ball really well and hit good putts; they just haven't fallen," said Woods, who didn't make a bogey and kept his round going with a long par putt on the 10th hole. "I have stayed patient and continued to plug along and played the golf course for what it gives me. ... Anytime you can be close to the top in a major, you have to be happy."
The front nine gave Els a chance to run away from the field, but the South African, 32, didn't take advantage of his red-hot start. Els made birdies on the first three holes and four of the last five on the front nine, saved par on the 10th hole and then proceeded to come back to reality when he bogeyed the par-4 11th hole after flying a wedge shot over the green.
"The front nine was quite amazing really," said Els, who bogeyed twice on the back to finish at 5-under 66. "On 11, I got too aggressive, I think.
"My blood was pumping there. I kind of scrambled my way through the back nine. But to start off from where I was, 1-under for the tournament, and now I'm 6-under and leading, I guess I would have taken it before the round started."
Despite having won two U.S. Open titles, in 1994 and again in 1997, Els doesn't sound like a player ranked No. 3 in the world behind Woods and Phil Mickelson. He works with the same sports psychologist as his friend, fellow South African Retief Goosen. Els might need Jos Vanstiphout this weekend as much as Goosen did last year in Tulsa, Okla., when he won the U.S. Open.
"He keeps grinding stuff in my head," said Els, who has not fulfilled the promise he exhibited after winning the two majors. "He's keeping me positive. He's got a pretty decent job to do the next couple of days. I've still got to make the putts and get the shots, but I've got a good support system."
Asked if he needs to be convinced that he can win, Els said, "You always need convincing."
Maruyama doesn't sound convinced that he can win here, either. Despite performing well while in the same threesome with Woods the first two days, Maruyama still seems to be in awe of the world's No. 1 player.
"Of course I'd like to win," said Maruyama, 32, who has won once on the PGA Tour and nine other tournaments around the world. "However if I keep saying that I want to win, I want to win, that only makes myself suffer, so I'd like to play my golf through the tournament. If I win, that's another bonus."
And what if he is leading after today's third round, then paired with Woods tomorrow?
"I will try my best to defeat him," Maruyama said. "However, I'm not saying that I will not be able to win. However, at this moment, I don't have the confidence to make any comment about winning."
Woods, 26, is not prone to any bold proclamations about winning his second British Open and ninth major championship, and won't even comment about the Grand Slam. But the bravado was starting to emerge on the back nine yesterday, despite him missing birdie putts of 6 and 10 feet on the 15th and 16th holes before making one on the par-5 17th from 15 feet.