HOYLAKE, England – On his way to the British Open, Tiger Woods stopped in Geneva and spent the day touring a Rolex factory. He has reason to be preoccupied with time.
The clock is ticking in Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major golf championships, as what began as a marathon becomes a middle-distance race. At 38, Woods will resume his quest for a 15th major title this week at Royal Liverpool after missing the year’s first two majors because of back surgery.
Some players will tee off before midnight PDT Wednesday.
The last time the tournament was held here, in 2006, Woods played with precision, avoiding every fairway pot bunker and making several nervy putts to defeat Chris DiMarco by two strokes for his 11th major championship.
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In 2006, the local fans, as rabid about sports as any Philadelphian, embraced Woods, whose father, Earl, died two months earlier.
Eight years later, Woods returns with fresh wounds that are physical, not emotional. Since his surgery March 31, Woods has played two competitive rounds, missing the cut last month at the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.
There are those who say his game cannot possibly be sharp enough to contend this week. The naysayers do not include Woods.
Asked what would be an acceptable finish, he replied without hesitation, “First.”
The answer left his lips so quickly, it was almost reflexive, like a husband who responds to his wife’s every request with “Yes, dear.”
Woods’ voice brimmed with enthusiasm, as if he cannot wait to play because he is free of pain.
“Playing at Congressional was a big boost to me, the fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain,” Woods said. “Each and every week, I’ve gotten 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.”
Without a victory in a major tournament for six years, Woods has come maddeningly close to ending the drought. He began the final round of last year’s British Open two strokes out of the lead, only to bogey three of the first six holes. He was tied for the lead after 36 holes at the 2012 U.S. Open.
Putting is what separates the awesome Woods from Woods the also-ran. The balls he once seemingly willed into the hole to hold off a generation of challengers are now lipping out or falling short. Woods has made 94.7 percent of his attempts this season from inside 5 feet, down from 97.1 percent in 2006.
By comparison, Justin Rose, winner of his last two starts, including the Quicken Loans National, has converted 96.8 percent this season. Rose’s fellow Englishman, Luke Donald, is at 98 percent.
“The Sunday before the U.S. Open, I didn’t break 50 for nine holes and still was able to win it in a playoff, with a torn ACL and a broken leg,” Woods said of his last major title, the 2008 U.S. Open. “I’ve proven I can do it. It’s just a matter of putting my game (together) and 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.”
Woods’ putting woes come at a time when the competition is extremely tight. The 24 majors since his last victory have produced 19 champions.
“The margin is so much smaller,” Woods said. “I think it gets harder every year, just because the fields get deeper.”
The rock-hard Royal Liverpool course Woods tamed in 2006 has changed. It is softer and lusher. Woods, too, is different.
“As a person, I’ve gone through a lot, the loss of a parent and having two kids,” said Woods, who was married in 2006 and since has divorced.
It has been suggested Woods’ priorities have shifted, with surpassing Nicklaus’ record becoming less important than being present for his children, Sam and Charlie. He acknowledged he had not worked on his game as much as he once did because his frail back would not let him.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” Woods said. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t move around the house. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t enjoy my life.”
Sitting out the Masters and the U.S. Open this year, Woods had plenty of time to digest all he has accomplished.
“That made me appreciate just how fortunate I was,” he said, “to be able to play at that level for such a long period of time.”
• Ryan Moore of Puyallup tees off at 11:53 p.m. PDT Wednesday and is in a group with Francesco Molinari of Italy and Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark.
Washington Huskies golfer Cheng-Tsung Pan of Taiwan tees off at 4:54 a.m. PDT Thursday and is playing alongside Brandt Snedeker of the United States and Graham DeLaet of Canada.