Tiger Woods chasing ninth title

Rory McIlroy drives during a practice round at Firestone Country Club, where he hopes to win a maiden WGC. Picture: Getty
Rory McIlroy drives during a practice round at Firestone Country Club, where he hopes to win a maiden WGC. Picture: Getty
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Former world number one Tiger Woods was in typically bullish mood yesterday as he looked ahead to the two events which will define his season.

Woods has played just two tournaments since undergoing back surgery in March, missing the cut in the Quicken Loans National and finishing 69th in the Open Championship behind wire-to-wire winner Rory McIlroy.

The 14-time major winner was asked at Royal Liverpool what an acceptable finishing position would be and replied “first,” but after a promising opening 69 faded to his worst-ever 72-hole finish in a major as a professional.

But that did not stop the 38-year-old from having the same goals in this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club and next week’s US PGA Championship at Valhalla, two venues where he has enjoyed previous success.

Woods has won eight times in Akron, Ohio, threatening to shoot a 59 in the second round last year before carding a 61 and cruising to a seven-shot victory, while he won the US PGA at Valhalla in 2000 after a three-hole play-off with Bob May.

However, he needs to reproduce similar kinds of results in the next fortnight simply to make the FedEx Cup play-offs and give himself four extra tournaments to boost his case for one of US captain Tom Watson’s three Ryder Cup wild cards.

“I would like to win these next two weeks and not have to worry about anything and that’s the plan. That’s the mindset and the focus and we will see how it feels after these weeks,” Woods told a pre-tournament press conference in Akron.

“I am so far out of it right now that I need to play well and get myself into the play-offs and hopefully play all four weeks. Unfortunately I have been in this position before (after injury in 2011) and did not make it. Hopefully this go around will be a little better.”

Woods is 215th in the FedEx Cup standings and needs to climb into the top 125. Finishing third this week and next would probably do the trick. Much worse than that and he would miss out.

At least Woods could not be in a better place, his eight victories in Akron allowing him to again match Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record for wins in an event. Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times. Woods also won at Bay Hill for the eighth time in 2013.

“To try to win the ninth there is no secret formula, just go out there and play well,” added Woods, who said he had been practising every day since returning from the Open.

“There are certain venues like here, Torrey Pines and Bay Hill where no matter what my form is going into that week, I just somehow feel good. It does not mean I am going to play well, but I still have that feeling.

“This is only my third event back after back surgery and that’s something that I have had to keep in mind. I’ve been in this situation before and it takes a bit of time. The knee [injury] is so much easier to come back from. The back injury was way more debilitating than I thought. People I have talked to who had the same procedure can’t understand how I am back playing so soon but I need to get much stronger and more explosive than I am now.”

McIlroy, meanwhile, insists he has already put his Open triumph behind him as he strives to achieve further goals before the end of this year.

The Northern Irishman has made a habit of stringing together red-hot runs of form during his burgeoning career and has set his sights on clinching a maiden World Golf Championships crown in Akron.

“I’ve obviously had a bit of time to reflect after the Open and everything, but just decided I wanted to move on and move forward,” said the world No 2.

“There’s a lot of big tournaments left this year, a lot of golf left to play and a lot of things I still want to achieve. So I definitely wasn’t going to dwell on what I’d done at Hoylake.

“I’ve never won a World Golf Championship. I’ve got three majors but never won one of these, so there’s a lot of stuff still to play for.”

Though McIlroy has suffered a few lapses in form, most notably last year when he struggled to adapt after changing his equipment manufacturer in January and having to cope with legal distractions, he has already achieved more than most of his peers. Victories at the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA Championship gave him two majors to cherish by the age of 24 and he followed up on both successes with a stirring run of form.

“I always feel like winning a major is almost a springboard in a way,” said the 25-year-old, who is scheduled to tee off with American Matt Kuchar in today’s opening round.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot of momentum, and I can carry that through to the end of the year. Hopefully ride that and play some really good golf, and some golf similar to what you saw at Hoylake.”