DEFENDING champion Darren Clarke yesterday echoed the sentiments of former world No1 Tiger Woods when he described the rough at this week's British Open as "absolutely brutal".

The 43-year-old Northern Irishman, who claimed the Claret Jug last year at Royal St George's, and Woods, chasing the record of 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus, left no doubt about the challenge at the Lytham and St Annes venue.

"The grass is quite thick," Clarke said. "It's not quite what we would expect on a links course. It's a little bit thicker than what you normally find. It's really tough - if you start spraying the ball around this week you might as well go home. There are a few patches out there where it's just absolutely brutal."

American Woods was similarly taken aback when he played a practice round at the Lancashire links course. "I've never seen the rough this high or thick and dense," the three-times British Open champion said. "You can't get out of it. That bottom six inches, in some places, is almost unplayable."

Woods, 36, has not won a Major title since the 2008 US Open. He has not finished in the top 10 at the British Open since winning at Hoylake in 2006, his third British Open crown after 2000 and 2005 triumphs at St Andrews.

And while he has been inconsistent this season, missing the cut twice including earlier this month at the Greenbrier Classic, he remains a favourite even among rivals.

Clarke, who has struggled badly for form since winning his first Major at Sandwich last year, believes there will be plenty of lost balls this week. "There are a few places where . I don't know if you'll be able to take a full swing and move it," he said.

He also said the bunkers would be almost as difficult as the rough.

"It's a nightmare because there are 205 bunkers and . they're very penal, very tough," said the former Ryder Cup stalwart. "You know there are going to be occasions here this week where I think you're going to see guys taking penalty drops out of them because they won't be able to move the ball anywhere."

He added: "Accuracy is going to be the key this week. It's not really length off the tee, it's going to be keeping it on the fairways and keeping it out of those bunkers."

Woods will play alongside Spain's Sergio Garcia and England's Justin Rose in the first and second rounds, according to groups and tee times released yesterday.

Garcia and Rose have not won a Major but figure to draw the largest crowds in the early rounds, especially with notable groups nearby.

Clarke will join Zach Johnson of the US and SA 's Ernie Els. In the group directly after Clarke's threesome are England's World No2 Lee Westwood, chasing his first Major title, reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson of the US and Japan's Yoshinori Fujimoto.

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell will start in the group immediately in front of Woods, playing alongside American Dustin Johnson and Japan's Hiroyuki Fujita.

Teeing off just after Woods will be five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, Germany's Martin Kaymer and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa.

Thursday afternoon's late starters include three impressive groups. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy will play alongside reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley of the US and 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen of SA.

In the group just behind them will be Ireland's Padraig Harrington, a two-time British Open champion, with US standout Rickie Fowler and Austrian amateur Manuel Trappel.

World No1 Luke Donald of England tees off in the next group with Australian Geoff Ogilvy and four-time Major winner Phil Mickelson.

US Open champion Webb Simpson, of the US, withdrew to be with his wife for the birth of their second child.

Reuters, Sapa-AFP