SOUTHPORT, England — Sergio Garcia is from Spain. Ernie Els hails from South Africa.

Both feel right at home on the western coast of England.

Even before Tiger Woods had to call it a year to have more surgery on his ailing knee, Garcia and Els would have liked their chances at a course such as Royal Birkdale, with all those odd bumps, that howling wind off the Irish Sea, the ominous clouds hanging overhead in seeming perpetuity.

The site of this year's British Open is the sort of place where they learned the game, honing their swings and accepting that it's not necessarily a bad thing to hit a grounder from the middle of the fairway.

Garcia got his first sampling of it as a junior golfer, playing for Spain against a team from Britain. He was 12 years old, 13 perhaps, and he fell in love with all the nuances and creativity.

"I've been fortunate enough to play a lot of links courses, a lot of links golf, and I love it," Garcia said Tuesday. "It's different, and it brings so many different parts of the game ... with a lot of imagination. It's always good when you get challenged on the course."

Els developed a similar kinship with this style of golf, so different from the aim-and-fire brand common on the PGA Tour with its perfectly manicured courses, smooth landing areas and intermittent doses of foul weather.

The Big Easy has extensive experience on the European Tour. On this side of the Atlantic, he knows surviving can be more important than hitting pretty shots.

"I think players like Sergio, like myself, feel very comfortable in this event more than any other," the 38-year-old Els said. "It's just because of the style of play, the style of golf courses, the layouts. I've played it since I was a teenager."

While some players might feel they have a better chance to shine with Woods watching from his couch back in the U.S., both Els and Garcia sincerely believe they would have stacked up just fine with the world's greatest player.

"I feel I'm on a much better level with Tiger in this kind of environment than say at the Masters or the PGA," Els said. "Let's face it, Sergio is very much a factor over here. This tournament, for a lot of guys, you feel like you can take on a guy like Tiger on a much more level playing field."

Of course, Woods is a three-time British Open champion and undoubtedly would have been the favorite if his knee was sound — just as at every major he plays.

But he's not here, so Garcia and Els are carrying the mantle of co-favorites, according to a popular British bookmaker.

The charismatic Spaniard has six top-10 finishes in the last seven years, including an excruciating playoff loss to Padraig Harrington a year ago at Carnoustie. The Irishman hit into the Barry Burn twice on the final hole and took double bogey, leaving Garcia with a 10-foot putt for the win.

The ball slid by the edge of the cup, and the four-hole playoff was all Harrington. Garcia, by most accounts, is the best player in the world without a major title.

Among Els' three major titles was the British Open in 2002 at Muirfield. He's been runner-up three other times — the most painful a playoff loss to unheralded Todd Hamilton in '04. Throw in a couple of third-place showings, then marvel at the fact that 10 of his 17 appearances have resulted in top-10 finishes.

"I'd like to think that experience might help," Els said.

Garcia said he's gotten over last year's setback, which was probably his best chance yet to break through in one of golf's biggest events. Sure, it bothered him for a day or two, but he insists that he quickly changed his focus to everything that went right.

"It's not really that big a deal, you know? There's a lot worse things than losing an Open in a playoff," he said. "There were a lot more positives coming out of the week than negatives."

But Harrington was the one left holding the claret jug at the end of the day. After having possession of it for the past year, he returned it to the R&A on Tuesday — then revealed that he's bothered by a sore right wrist.

The Irishman sprained it last weekend while swinging into an "impact bag," sort of like a punching bag for golfers — only it's supposed to strengthen the wrist, not leave it hurting.

After skipping a couple of days of potentially crucial practice, Harrington finally made it onto the course Tuesday. But he only managed to play nine holes.