DESPITE back surgery that confined him to bed, a four-month period of rehab in which he has played just two competitive rounds and, perhaps more significantly, six long years without a major title, Tiger Woods managed to betray not the slightest sign of weakness when he showed up at Royal Liverpool yesterday.
Some things never change. The former world No 1 is among that elite group of athletes who refuse to acknowledge their fallibility for fear that it will encourage opponents. In his pomp, when the wheels came off, Woods routinely claimed that he was only a few missed putts from his best, and most of us believed him.
Now, it is not so easy. The challenge for Woods this week is to recover somehow some of the old aura despite his recent travails. Not only is he returning to the major-championship fold after missing the Masters and the US Open, he is searching for the form that was lost long before he went under the knife in March.
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open. Still four short of the 18 won by Jack Nicklaus, he looks less likely than ever to break that record. He practises less – albeit partly due to injury – the clutch putts have gone and he no longer strikes fear into opponents.
And yet, here he was, on the eve of a championship that he has won three times already, claiming that he would settle for nothing less than another one at Hoylake. Second place would be “unacceptable” to the American.
Woods’ argument is that he has done it before. That last major triumph, at Torrey Pines six years ago, was famously secured on one leg. Despite a double stress fracture of his left tibia, he beat Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole play-off. By recalling that performance yesterday, he sought to perpetuate an old myth: that he can do what is beyond mere mortals. The problem is that the 2014 Tiger is not the Tiger of 2008, Hoylake is not Torrey Pines and the back problem that floored him in March was far more debilitating than the knee injury of six years earlier. By his own admission, the microdiscectomy he underwent four months ago was so disabling that he was grateful to have played golf at all.
“When my knee was bad, it was tough, but I could still chip and putt,” he said. “I could still go out there on the golf course. This particular injury with my back, I didn’t want to do anything. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t move around the house. I couldn’t do anything. That made me appreciate just how fortunate I was to be able to play at that level for such a long period of time. And do it for the better part of 17 years at a pretty high level. It made me appreciate that a lot more.
“When my leg was pretty trashed, I could actually still go out there and play. I couldn’t do it with this injury. I couldn’t enjoy my life. Just life, the daily things of just moving around. It just wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”
Relieved, after the operation, to no longer have the pain that used to shoot down his leg, Woods made his comeback sooner than expected. At the Quicken Loans National last month, his short game was poor, his swing looked cautious and he missed the cut, but there were no physical setbacks.
Since then, he has had a week’s holiday with his children, followed by a fortnight of solid preparation for Royal Liverpool, where he has been since Saturday. If he can even make it to the weekend, it will be a huge achievement for Woods, who believes that he has come a long way in a short space of time.
“It was a matter of time before I could get strong. Once I started getting stronger, more stable, I could work on my explosiveness, and start getting my speed back. Each and every week I’ve got stronger and faster. Probably not quite at the level that I think I can be at as far as my explosion through the golf ball, but I’m pretty darn close.”
The question is, close to what? The form he struggled with before the operation? The form that was not good enough to sustain his challenge at Muirfield a year ago? Surely not the form that won him his last Open, at Royal Liverpool in 2006?
That victory has been portrayed as a masterclass in course-management, which is a little misleading. His conservative approach – which famously entailed using the driver only once – was forced upon him by the course’s baked-out, hard-running fairways. He was not the only player using irons off the tee, but he was one of the few who benefited from that handicap. The driver was his weakness.
This year, the fairways are green, the rough is up and the big dogs will be out, which is another good reason to doubt Woods’ prospects. It will be an achievement to rank alongside, maybe even eclipse, Torrey Pines if he can repeat the 2006 victory that closely followed his father’s death. “That was a very emotional week,” said Woods. “I pressed pretty hard at Augusta that year, trying to win it, because it was the last time my dad was going to see me play a major. And then I didn’t play well at the [US] Open. I missed the cut there miserably.
“Then I 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.”
The others were Augusta in 1997, when he won his first major, and the Open and US Open of 2000. If this week’s tournament were to join that list, it would top the lot.