There have been trials and tribulations aplenty since Tiger Woods last got his mitts on the Claret Jug here at Royal Liverpool but the 14-time Major winner’s refusal to accept anything less than victory has remained constant throughout.
It was 2006 that Woods won The Open Championship for the third and most recent time and the 38-year-old insisted yesterday he had not even considered the fact that he had effectively arrived back at the scene of that victory having failed to regain the Claret Jug throughout a complete rota of Open courses, at least “not until now”.
“What do I think? I wish I would have added a few more,” Woods said. “I’m at three and hopefully I get more than that.”
Yet, having played just two competitive rounds since March, having undergone back surgery, many believe he will be just too rusty to make a run at a fourth in 2014.
Woods, though, is adamant he can win this weekend and claim his first Major victory since the 2008 US Open to inch closer to Jack Nicklaus’s career record 18 Majors.
“I think I’ve been in circumstances like this before. If you remember in ’08 I had knee surgery right after the Masters. I teed it up to the US Open and won a US Open. I didn’t play more than nine holes and the Sunday before the US Open I didn’t break 50 for nine holes and still was able to win it in a play-off, with an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament injury) and a broken leg.
“I’ve proven I can do it, it’s just a matter of putting my game and giving myself the best chances this week to miss the ball in the correct spots, to be aggressive when I can, and obviously to hole putts. That’s a recipe you find for every Major championship, but I’ve just got to do it this week.”
Returning to Royal Liverpool for the first time since his 2006 Open victory was achieved in the wake of his father’s death has inevitably invited comparisons between the Tiger who dominated the field over a sun-parched links back then and the one now who has since been through enough turmoil, mental and physical, to last many people a lifetime.
“Well, it’s eight years on,” Woods said. “My life has certainly changed a lot since then. That was a very emotional week. I pressed pretty hard at Augusta that year, trying to win it, because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play a Major championship. And then I didn’t play well at the (US) Open. Missed the cut there miserably. And then came here and just felt at peace. I really, really played well. On Sunday I really felt calm out there. It was surreal at the time. I’ve had a few moments like that in Majors where I’ve felt that way on a Sunday. And that was certainly one of them.”
Those moments of serenity have produced some of the most awe-inspiring dominance the game of golf has seen, but Woods could not put his finger on the reason for them.
“If I knew, I’d do it all the time,” he said, “but it just happens. Maybe because I was in control of my game. The times I’ve had it I’ve really played well. Everything was working. I think that in ’97 at Augusta I had it going pretty good, 2000 at both the US Open and The Open Championship I had it going pretty good, as well. And that year in ’06 was the same. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was every day but certainly on Sunday I really felt that my dad was with me on that one round. I said it back then in ’06 it was like having my 15th club. I felt that type of at peace when I was out there.”
Can that sense of peace return to Woods this week at Hoylake? His lack of tournament golf in a year hampered by back problems and the limited preparation since microdiscectomy surgery for a pinched nerve in March would suggest not. He has managed just five tournaments in 2014 and played 16 rounds with just one top-25 finish, at Doral in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, to show for them.
His comeback from surgery came a fortnight ago at Congressional Country Club in the Quicken Loans Invitational and lasted just two rounds, a 74 and 75, to miss the cut at seven over par. Yet Woods said he benefited greatly for the workout and his game is heading in the right direction.
“It’s getting better. Playing at Congressional was a big boost to me. The fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain. It wasn’t like that the previous time I played. Playing at both the Honda (at which he withdrew after three rounds) and Doral, I did not feel well.
“But to come back and be able to hit the ball as hard as I was able to hit it. I’ve gotten stronger since then, I’ve gotten more explosive, I’ve gotten faster since then. That’s going to be the case, I’m only going to get stronger and faster, which is great.”
There may be scepticism about Woods’s ability to compete this week but if the golfer himself is in the right frame of mind, that is half the battle won and Tiger is nothing if not the picture of confidence.
Asked what would be an acceptable finish this weekend, Woods did not hesitate to reply.
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