Tiger still the one to be caught

Tiger Woods was talking about the Old Course at St Andrews when he said: “It’s been different the last three times I’ve played here.”

But the world number one could easily have been referring to the state of his game instead, and now his reputation as well, as he prepared to challenge for an unprecedented third Open victory at the Home of Golf.

In 1995, Woods was still an amateur when he finished seven over par and in a tie for 68th. By 2000 he was the world number one, winner of three major titles and about to claim number four on his way to the ’Tiger Slam’ of holding all four major titles at once.

Five years later Woods had collected nine major titles and would go on to make it 10 at St Andrews, with Jack Nicklaus’ record tally of 18 looking certain to be broken, sooner rather than later.

However, another five years on the American remains stuck on 14 major titles and with his game and private life subject to even greater scrutiny than ever following the sex scandal which broke in November last year.

Even a comparison with just 12 months ago shows just how things have changed for the 34-year-old. Coming into Turnberry 12 months ago, Woods had won three tournaments, had not been outside the top 10 in all eight strokeplay events played, had a stroke average of 69.28 and was a collective 63 under par.

In 2010, Woods has played just six PGA Tour events and only 21 rounds, finishing fourth in the Masters and US Open but missing the cut in the Quail Hollow Championship with rounds of 74 and 79.

That was only the sixth cut missed in a professional career spanning 14 years, and the 79 just two shots less than his worst score in the paid ranks, an 81 in horrendous weather in the 2002 Open at Muirfield.

Woods has broken 70 just three times in his last 17 rounds and is 77th on the US tour money list, below the likes of Alex Prugh, Chad Collins and Derek Lamely.

Despite such statistics and missing the cut at Turnberry last year, Woods remains favourite to win the 139th Open when it gets under way tomorrow.

“I wouldn’t say I have a specific advantage (at St Andrews) because there’s a lot of guys who can hit the ball as far as I do,” Woods said at his pre-tournament press conference. “But this golf course requires placement.

“You really have to place the ball correctly. Just because it’s wide off the tee doesn’t mean you can blow it all over the place. You have to hit the ball in the correct spot and the two years that I’ve played well here, I’ve done that.”

Second favourite behind Woods is 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, who has missed the cut in the year’s first two majors and is a collective 13 over par for the two Open Championships he has played.

However, McIlroy has an excellent record over the Old Course, never shooting worse than 69 in three editions of the Dunhill Links Championship and one St Andrews Links Trophy.

Finishing third in his second event as a professional here in 2007 also saw him secure his European Tour card in a record two events, and McIlroy said: “I know going into this championship that I’ve played well around this golf course before, which gives me a lot of confidence.

“But I suppose it also brings a little bit of added pressure knowing that I’m expecting myself to play well, and I’m sure a lot of people are expecting me to play well. But if I can just think back, I have a lot of great memories from this place. Hopefully those can stand by me for the week.”

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