Tiger Woods enters next week’s British Open at Royal Liverpool needing a victory to keep pace with Jack Nicklaus in major wins while his injury-ravaged body tries to turn back the clock.
The 38-year-old American has won 14 major titles, but none since the 2008 US Open as he tries to overtake the all-time record of 18 won by Nicklaus, who captured his 15th major at age 38 at the 1978 British Open at St Andrews.
Woods won the Claret Jug the last time he played at Hoylake in the 2006 British Open, but this year he has managed to finish 72 holes only once without battling severe pain, that in Dubai back in early February.
Woods underwent back surgery on March 31 to ease pressure on a pinched nerve and was idle for 109 days until making a comeback two weeks ago just outside Washington at the US PGA National, firing 74 and 75 to miss the cut at Congressional Country Club.
But such is the woeful state of Woods’ game that back-to-back healthy rounds, no matter how far over par, was considered a positive achievement as he faces his first major since the surgery.
“I hate to say it but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week,” Woods said two weeks ago in his most recent public comments.
“What I was able to do physically and the speed I had and distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time. And to recover like I did overnight, still leery about it, ‘How am I going to recover?’ Felt great.”
Woods was inconsistent off the tee and on the green and blamed his struggles on minor problems he declared fixable before the British Open.
“I made so many little mistakes — missing the ball on the wrong sides, not having the right feel for certain shots, not judging the wind correctly and speed on putts — all the little things that I know I can fix. But as I said, that’s very encouraging.”
What’s discouraging is seeing how far his form has fallen from the icon who launched “Tigermania” with an epic 1997 Masters win, took four majors in a row and seven of 11 from 1999 to 2002, then ran off six major wins in 14 tries from the 2005 Masters to the 2008 US Open.
Since then, he has battled numerous knee and leg injuries, coped with the aftermath of his infamous sex scandal and divorce, changed his swing to ease the load on his knees and faced back pain that left him bed-ridden at one stage — all while a younger generation of rivals he inspired have come of age and started winning majors themselves.