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'Each week I've got stronger and faster. I'm pretty darn close now'

Well, that was not a good start to Open week.

MEMORY LANE: Tiger Woods and his coach Sean Foley walk past a scoreboard which carries his name and status as last Open champion at Hoylake. Picture: Getty Sport
MEMORY LANE: Tiger Woods and his coach Sean Foley walk past a scoreboard which carries his name and status as last Open champion at Hoylake. Picture: Getty Sport

Tiger Woods kept an increasingly fidgety press pack waiting for over 30 minutes before finally striding into the media centre for his pre-championship chin-wag. He should've been given a two-shot penalty for being late on the tee.

The fact he is here at all is something of a minor miracle. The former world No.1 has had more operations than an SAS veteran in recent years and the latest surgical guddle - a microdiscectomy to fix a pinched nerve in his back - has generated a frenzy of probings, ponderings and pontificatings.

The say a dodgy back can bring the strongest man to his knees. And Woods knows all about wonky knees. But he's here, he's ready and he's raring to go. A lot has happened to Woods since he won the last of his three Claret Jugs at Hoylake back in 2006, an emotional conquest that arrived just a couple of months after the loss of his father, Earl.

In the eight years that have passed, Woods has become a father twice, he's been engulfed by scandal that led to divorce, he's endured a myriad of injuries and he's overhauled his swing.

Adversity is supposed to make you stronger, and the 14-time major winner has endured plenty of that, both emotionally and physically during these turbulent chapters of an astonishing career. "You can have emotional turmoil and still play well," he said. "Physically, when you're hurt, you're hurt.

"With this injury, 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 play, for the better part of 17 years, at a high level.

"The surgery changes your life. You're sore for the incision but you don't have that radiating pain that goes down your leg. Once that was removed, I knew I could come back. Once I started getting stronger, more stable, I could work on my explosiveness. Each week I've got stronger and faster.

"Probably not to the level that I think I can be as far as my explosion through the golf ball is concerned but I'm pretty darn close."

Given that he has played only two competitive rounds of golf since that surgery in March, it would seem almost ludicrous to suggest that he can simply parachute himself back into to the rigours of a major championship battle. The Tiger is a different animal, mind you.

"First," he said swiftly when asked what an acceptable finish for him would be this week. "That's always the case. I've been in circumstances like this before, if you remember. In 2008, I had knee surgery right after the Masters and then teed-up at the US Open and won. I didn't play more than nine holes and the Sunday before the US Open, I didn't break 50 for nine holes. I was still able to win in a play-off, without an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] and a broken leg. I've proven I can do it."

Woods has played a bit more than nine holes here at Hoylake this week. He played Saturday, Sunday and yesterday. He's experienced Royal Liverpool's abundant challenges in three different winds and his preparation is going well.

The last time he was here, Hoylake, burnt to a crisp, was as fast and as bumpy as a journey with a Scouse cabbie on a promise and he utilised his driver just once over 72 holes as he manoeuvred his imperious way around the potential perils and pitfalls.

Hoylake is a slightly different course this week. "Now, we're making ball marks on the greens," he noted, of the more lush surroundings that he has encountered thus far, although things have been slowly firming up in the dry, pleasant conditions.

The forecast for downpours should temper that though, and Rory McIlroy added that Woods ironing out of Hoylake with the iron is unlikely to be repeated this week. "It's not going to be an option to hit an iron off every tee; you're going to have to be a bit aggressive and take things on," he suggested.

In 2006, Woods, still grieving the loss of his dad, found comfort on these links. "I had pressed pretty hard at the Masters that year because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play in a major championship," he reflected. "I then missed the cut miserably at the US Open but came here [to Hoylake] and just felt at peace. I felt calm and it was surreal.

"I just felt my dad was with me on that final round. It was like having a 15th club in the bag."

From those days of majesty, when he was demolishing all and sundry and racking up major titles is wild abundance, the golfing landscape has changed. As he creeps towards his 40s, Woods is well aware of that. "It gets harder every year," said Woods, who won his last major crown back in 2008. "The fields get deeper. What did we have recently, 16, 17 straight first-time winners?

"It's only going to continue. Guys are going to get longer, they're going to get faster, they are more athletic. When I first came out here [on tour] in '97, I think I averaged somewhere just under 300 yards off the tee. I was 296 or something. I walked around with Gary Woodland on Sunday here and he said to me 'Yeah, I finally found a driver and a ball I can hit 320 yards in the air'. In the air? The game has changed a lot."

In the modern era, it was Woods who was the fastest, the longest, the most athletic. Here at Hoylake, the wounded Tiger is playing catch up.

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