<image="1" align="left" />Tiger Woods has gone to Royal Liverpool with high ambition for a man coming off major back surgery. He has played just one tournament, at Congressional where he missed the cut a couple of weeks ago, since he went under the surgeon's knife.
But when a reporter asked him what an acceptable finish would be at the Open Championship this week, his reply stretched to one word. ''First,'' he said. When another reporter queried this, he added: "That's always the case, yes.''
Woods has always been the same way. He never went into a tournament he did not think that he could win, even if the external impression is that he is short of preparation. The surgery is significant; it virtually stopped Retief Goosen's career, for instance. Bookmakers are offering $25 odds about a Woods win this week, which would have been unthinkable even 12 months ago.
But the former No. 1 player and 14-time major champion is back on familiar territory. He won the Open Championship the last time it was played at Hoylake in 2006, hitting two-iron stingers off the tee all week, and he collapsed in tears on the 72nd green. This was the year that his father, Earl, had died.
"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,'' Woods recalled today. "I said it back then in '06 that it was like having my 15th club. I felt that type of at peace when I was out there.''
His game, he says, is improving. At Congressional he was feeling his way, testing his back to work out whether he could go forward. Although he did not play well, he had no setbacks. "Playing at Congressional was a big boost to me,'' he said. "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 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.''
Woods has won the Open three times but has been on a major championship drought by his high standards. He has not won any of the big four tournaments since his 2008 US Open win in a playoff over Rocco Mediate, his greatest triumph since he managed it with a bung knee and a fracture in his leg. If he wins at Royal Liverpool this week on such a limited preparation, it might go down as one better.
"I think it gets harder every year, just because the fields get deeper,'' he said. "More guys with a chance to win. What did we have, 16, 17 straight first-time winners and more Major championship winners throughout that stretch. It's just getting deeper. It's getting harder to win. The margin is so much smaller. It's only going to continue to be the case.
"Guys are going to get longer, they're going to get faster. Guys who are coming out here are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic. When I first came out here in '97, I think, I averaged somewhere just under 300 yards, 296 or something like that. I walked around with Gary Woodland on Sunday and he said, "Yeah, I finally found a driver and a ball I can hit 320 again in the air." Yes, in the air! So the game has changed a lot since then.''
Woods tees off at 6.04pm AEST on Thursday with Henrik Stenson and Angel Cabrera, both also major winners.