Open debate rages over which Tiger will turn up
THE question has been asked many times over the last few years: Is the real Tiger Woods back?
It was asked when he finished fourth in the Masters in 2010 after almost five months out of the game following the revelations about his private life in late 2009.
It was asked again almost two years later when he climbed back into the world's top 10 with victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational after a slump in form had seen him drop outside the top 50. And it was asked again, with far more conviction, when the 14-time major winner returned to the very top of the rankings in March last year with his third of five wins in 2013.
However, we now know that those five wins came in the rare weeks when Woods felt fully fit, the weeks when a serious back injury did not flare up and leave him struggling to get out of bed.
It was a back injury that led to Woods shooting a third round of 65 in the Honda Classic only to withdraw after 13 holes of the final round. A back injury which saw him record the worst final round of his career, a 78, the following week in the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
And it was a back injury which finally led him to undergo microdiscectomy surgery on March 31 to relieve the pain caused by a pinched nerve - surgery which meant he missed the Masters for the first time in his career and also the US Open at Pinehurst.
To the delight of millions of golf fans, not to mention those concerned with ticket sales at the R&A, Woods returned to action in the Quicken Loans National at the end of June, a tournament which benefits his own foundation.
It was no surprise that the 38-year-old refused to rule out winning the event despite not having played since early March, nor was it surprising that he actually missed the halfway cut with rounds of 74 and 75.
But what was surprising was the difference in attitude now to when he reclaimed the world number one spot last year. On that occasion, Woods said: "I don't want to become as good as I once was - I want to become better."
Fifteen months later, there were self-deprecating remarks and a sense Woods had finally started to accept his own limitations.
"The difference as I've aged is I can't play the way I used to," Woods said. "I feel old. The Chinese kid (14-year-old Guan Tianlang) who qualified for the Masters last year was born after I won the tournament for the first time and that is just not cool.
"That is what is coming. The next generation are taller, bigger and more physical - these kids in college, all the long-hitters are 6ft 2in to 6ft 4in. I was number two in driving distance for a number of years just behind John Daly, but things have changed dramatically.
"I have to rely on different parts of my game like strategy and course management."
Fortunately for Woods, that was good enough to win the Open the last time it was staged at Hoylake in 2006 (pictured below), when the dry, hard conditions meant he barely got his driver out of the bag for the entire week.
It remains to be seen whether such conditions are to be repeated, but a man who won 50pc of the major championships he entered between 2000 and 2002 has now gone six years without winning any of the game's four biggest prizes.
That victory over Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the US Open in 2008 came just days before he had reconstructive surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, so no-one can be absolutely certain he cannot win a fourth Open title now he is pain free for the first time in two years.
Having said that, Woods' rivals have gained confidence and major titles of their own over the last few years, with recent statistics suggesting the cream will again rise to the top at Hoylake.
Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest ranked winner of a major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.
Last year, Adam Scott was ranked seventh when he won the Masters, Justin Rose fifth before his US Open triumph at Merion and Phil Mickelson also fifth before his Open victory at Muirfield. Jason Dufner was 21st when he won the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
So far in 2014, Bubba Watson was ranked 12th before claiming his second Masters title and Martin Kaymer 28th before winning a second major crown in the US Open.
Fifth in the rankings after his comeback event, Woods would fit in nicely with that recent run of top-quality major champions. But Hoylake looks to have come just too soon even for him.