Despite missing the last two majors through injury, and playing just two competitive rounds in more than four months, the former world No 1 is confident of lifting a fourth Claret Jug at Hoylake on Sunday night.
Asked what would be an acceptable finish in the 143rd Open, given his limited preparations, the man who won the last of his three Claret Jugs here in 2006 replied: “First.”
When that prompted a murmur of laughter among the assembled press, Woods was asked to elaborate. Did he mean that anything worse than first was unacceptable? “That’s always the case, yes,” he answered.
Woods, who underwent back surgery in March, and made his comeback in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional last month, can take inspiration from his last major victory, at the 2008 US Open, which he won with a broken leg.
“I’ve been in circumstances like this before,” he said. “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 and a broken leg. I’ve proven I can do it. It’s just a matter of 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.”
Woods’ return has invigorated The Open. Every shot of his comeback is to be broadcast live by ESPN. Many of the players, including Rory McIlroy, are glad to have him back, irrespective of how he performs.
“It’s important,” said McIlroy. “Tiger Woods has been the face of our game for 15 – or nearly – 20 years, I guess. So to have him playing, to have him back and competing is important. It’s great to see him healthy for a start. He always adds a lot of buzz and excitement for the tournament.”
McIlroy adds a bit of that himself. The 25-year-old Northern Irishman has a US Open and a PGA title under his belt, but he has struggled in the Open Championship. In five attempts as a professional, he has secured only one top-ten finish.
This will be the first time since 2009 that he has prepared for The Open by playing in the Scottish Open. McIlroy finished 14th at Royal Aberdeen last week, hampered by another of his ruinous second rounds, but he believes that he will benefit from the experience.
“I’m glad I played up in Scotland last week,” said McIlroy. “I feel as prepared as I ever have coming into an Open Championship, just because [I played] four competitive rounds on links, and played in some different conditions up there. It was a good week in terms of preparation for the Open. I’m a little disappointed with how I finished. I had three good rounds, and obviously one not-too-good round, but the game feels in good shape. I feel like I got a lot of good links practice last week, which will hopefully help this week.”
McIlroy impressed the North-east galleries with his 425-yard drive to the 13th green, but a more conservative approach will be required in the days ahead. He insists that, despite his love of big-hitting, he can rein himself in when circumstances demand.
“I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to the length I hit it. Yes, I hit it long off the tee, but not always straight. So I’d rather hit it 290, 300 in the fairway every time. That would make life much easier.”
Fred Daly became Northern Ireland’s first Open champion at Royal Liverpool in 1947. McIlroy, who believes that the tournament will be won and lost on the course’s par 5s, would like nothing better than to emulate his countryman 67 years later. “It would be very special,” he said. “Watching a lot of the Opens growing up, and even going to a couple of them to watch when I was a kid, it’s special. It’s the only one played outside of the States as well. And it’s played on links. It’s the oldest and it probably has the richest history of all of them.
“If I was to win my third major here, it would be the third leg of a career grand slam as well. Not many golfers have done that. So it would be special. It would be very important. Hopefully, by the time I hang up my boots, I’ll get my name on that trophy.”