By Martyn Herman
HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - Ernie Els left a spectator bloodied with a wild opening tee shot, defending champion Phil Mickelson went out of bounds, and Bubba Watson's promising start was blown away at the British Open on Thursday.
One of the most eye-catching groups of the tournament's first round had a wretched day, carding a cumulative 13 over par to leave their chances of challenging for the Claret Jug hanging in the balance.
With 11 majors between them, the large galleries following the trio around the Royal Liverpool course would have expected golf as dazzling as the afternoon sunshine.
Instead, the breeze picked up and events took several turns for the worse.
Double Open champion Els went round in 79 after being visibly shaken by the bloody aftermath of an errant drive at the first and then missing two tiddlers on the green, one with a casual back-handed putt usually reserved for park hackers.
"I hit the guy right in the face, there was blood everywhere," the South African told reporters.
"I felt pretty bad about it. I was trying to hit it left, which I did, but obviously I should have told the starter to move the people left, but I didn't do that.
"I hit him right in the face and it's like a bullet coming at you and you fear the worst.
"I really felt bad, hopefully he's better now. I was thinking about him still on the green. I started missing easy putts and it was a nightmare but I just hope the gentleman is feeling better. He didn't look too good."
Organizers later said the man had been taken to hospital but was not seriously hurt.
Two-time Masters champion Watson was still two under after eight holes before three bogeys and a triple on the back nine left him frustrated on four-over 76.
Fellow American Mickelson endured an eight-minute delay during a fruitless search for his ball on the 18th, eventually being shuttled back up the fairway in a course buggy to play another one, which he promptly hit into rough.
His six capped a two-over 74, although he was at least upbeat afterwards about his form.
The same could not be said for Els.
"I think I put the jinx on the group," Els, who was later disturbed by a frog on the 18th, said. "I think I played the first nine (holes) seven over in great conditions, which is unheard of.
"I think I pulled them down a bit."
Left-hander Watson, a huge crowd favorite with his swashbuckling style, put his disappointing start down to losing focus on the par-four 11th hole.
"I lost it on the short 11th," he said. "I had to ask my caddie about four times what the distance was. Then I plugged it up against the back lip (of the bunker).
"I had a triple there and after that just never had anything. I just didn't stay committed and focused on what I was doing on that shot and that cost me dearly.
"Hopefully tomorrow I can make the cut but the weather is supposed to be a little iffy. Somehow I'll have to make a few birdies."
The 44-year-old Mickelson has endured a lean time since an inspired final round at Muirfield last year earned him the Open title at the 20th time of asking.
He has not posted a top-10 finish since that memorable day and missed the cut at his beloved Masters in April.
Ever optimistic, he said his game was back.
"That's the best I've hit it in over a year," he told reporters. "The score sucks, but my game is as good as it's been in a long time.
"I've felt like it's just been a fraction off. I've been saying it's a fraction off for a while now. And I feel now I found that last fraction. And it's started to click."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Stephen Wood)