Back in the hunt, it could be Tiger time again

After three years away from The Open due to a series of back surgeries, Tiger Woods really could not have picked a better time to make his return to the game’s oldest championship.

The three-time champion, now 42, last collected the Claret Jug in 2006, a dozen years ago, and his triumph at Hoylake in that red-hot summer was in firm and fast conditions that look set to be replicated on the dried out links here at Carnoustie.

For a 14-time major champion finally returning to form after years of decline, that makes Woods a serious threat this week as he plays his third major of the year and his reverence for The Open is all too transparent.

“I’ve always loved playing links golf. It’s my favourite type of golf to play. I say that, I love playing here, this type of links golf, or a style of links golf down on the Aussie sand belt.

I enjoy this type of golf because it is creative. We’re not going to get the most perfect bounces. You know, a certain shot that is hit you think is a wonderful shot down the middle of the fairway could bounce some weird way. That’s just part of it. And I think that’s the fun challenge of it.

“I mean, feel has a lot to do with playing The Open, and I think the guys traditionally over the years who have done well have been wonderful feel players and also wonderful lag putters because a lot of times it is difficult to get the ball close and have a numerous amount of putts from about 40, 50 feet.”

Woods certainly figures in the roll call of Open greats having won twice at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005 before retaining his status as Champion Golfer of the Year at Hoylake the following year.

“I think it’s just understanding how to play the golf course and how to play these kind of conditions. I think trajectory means a lot. This course can be played so many different ways, which is going to be the real interesting test is how we’re going to manage our way around the golf course.

There’s not a lot of opportunities to hit the driver just because the ball is going to be rolling 80 yards. It’s just hard to keep the ball in play. Even hitting sometimes 4 and 5 irons, they’ve been running 50, 60 yards.

“It’s going to be an interesting test to see which clubs we’re going to be using off the tees, and a lot of it is dependent on which way the wind blows. So the whole idea of these practice rounds is just to get a good feel for what I’m going to do, and then adjust accordingly based on wind.”

Coming off a tie for fourth in his last start, earlier this month at the Quicken Loans National in Washington DC, his third top-five finish of the season with a tie for 11th at The Players also on his 2018 PGA Tour record. A first victory since 2013 seems only a matter of time.

“Well, each tournament I keep coming back to, I keep feeling a little bit better because I’m starting to play some golf again. My feels are much better than they were at the beginning of the year, and I feel like I have a better understanding of my game and my body and my swing, much more so than I did at Augusta (when he tied for 32nd at the Masters).

“That’s just going to come with a little bit more experience, and I think that I’ve made a few adjustments, as you’ve seen so far. I’ve changed putters. I’ve tweaked my swing a little bit since the west coast swing. And everything’s gotten just a little bit better.

I’ve put myself up there in contention a couple times. Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?

Winning again is one thing, adding a 15th major to his list of achievements something else but Woods, now ranked at 67 in the world, his highest point since 2015 having slipped to 674th in 2017, agreed that The Open may offer his best chance of closing the gap on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

“As far as long term, certainly, I would say yes because of the fact that you don’t have to be long to play on a links style golf course, and look what Tom (Watson) did at Turnberry (finishing second in 2009) at 59. So it’s possible. Greg (Norman) was there at Birkdale (in 2008, finishing third), I think about 54-ish, somewhere around there, 53, 54. It certainly can be done.

You get to places like Augusta National, where it’s just a big ballpark, and the golf course outgrows you, unfortunately.

"That’s just the way it goes. But links style golf course, you can roll the ball. I hit a 3-iron that went down there to 330. Well, even if I get a little bit older, I can still chase some wood or long club down there and hit the ball the same distance.

“So distance becomes a moot point on a links style golf course. But creativity plays such an important role, and you’ve got guys like Tom playing late in his career, doing well. There’s a reason why he won five of these — very creative and hit all the shots.”

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