The Tiger Woods of old -- the ace who could practically step up to a tee and bend a golf course and his playing partners to his will -- would make his opponents sorry they ever talked trash about him (poor Stephen Ames).
Today’s 38-year-old version of the 14-time major champion who showed up at Hoylake five days before Thursday’s kickoff to the British Open may not be the same guy who won four straight grand slam titles over two seasons, or even the golfer who captured five PGA Tour titles in 2013. But he still seems intent on making his critics eat their Tiger-bashing words.
Woods earned his 11th major title at Royal Liverpool in 2006 after similar prep work, and though a back injury required surgery and has limited him to just two less-than-stellar rounds in more than four months, he expressed confidence in his ability to contend for his fourth claret jug.
"I'm not favoring anything," Woods told ESPN after playing a damp 12 holes with Patrick Reed in the mist this weekend. "The little baby steps worked. We were very diligent about what I was doing. Going into it we pushed it pretty hard to get my abs and glutes strong so when I did come back I was able to rebound fast.
"I can do whatever I want, I'm at that point now," he said. "We didn't think we'd get to that point until this tournament or the week after."
Woods also said he had reclaimed his explosiveness, which was missing at Congressional.
"Before I had the procedure, I couldn’t do anything," he said. "This is how I used to feel. I had been playing with [the back injury] for a while and I had my good weeks and bad weeks. Now they are all good. I’ve got my speed back and I’m starting to hit the ball out there again."
While his words are unlikely, as in years past, to wobble the knees of the top players in the world who will toil at Hoylake, Woods may have been taking aim at the naysayers outside the ropes, many of whom believed Tiger needed to add another pre-Open tourney to his schedule.
"We haven't seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now, so back injury, not playing well, hasn't played any competitive golf in over three months now, pushing four months, it's hard to expect anything out of anybody," two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN analyst Curtis Strange said during a conference call last week. "I hope he makes the cut … But I don't think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend."
Hank Haney was everywhere, proclaiming that Woods was not prepared for the upcoming major and that he had taken his eye off the ball.
"That [Woods] isn’t going to play competitively in the two weeks running up to the Open speaks to the fact that he doesn’t care as much as he used to," Haney, who coached Tiger to six of his 14 major titles, told John Huggan recently.
Haney told Golf Digest that his student from 2004-2010 lacked the "drive" that propelled him to 79 PGA Tour victories.
"I can’t believe he feels like he is ready to win the Open. If he did, he would have played at the Greenbrier this week or at the Scottish Open," Haney said, joining the chorus of observers singing a similar song and one that he has sounded many times since his acrimonious breakup with his former pupil. "But he hasn’t practiced much for almost a year now. He took time off at the end of last season, played a bit, then got hurt. So he is way behind in his preparation."
Woods’ peers offered a different take on the former world No. 1.
"We have all witnessed what Tiger has been able to do over his career, whether that's come back from injury and win, come back from any sort of off-course stuff and win," Rory McIlroy said ahead of last week’s Scottish Open. "I mean, he won the U.S. Open on one leg, really on one leg.
"Is it foolish for people to write him off? I would say so," McIlroy added. "If he's playing and he's competing, he's got as good a chance as any. I wouldn't write him off completely. I still think he can do things that we have never seen from any other golfer."
Matt Kuchar originally questioned the sagacity of his Presidents Cup partner coming back so soon from his March 31 microdiscectomy but what he saw during a practice round with Woods on Sunday changed his mind.
"I thought he was crazy to come back as early as he did but he said he thought it was the right thing to do, to test it and see how fit he is. He said he’s recovering well, that after playing he gets up the next day and feels good," Kuchar told James Corrigan. "We had a little match going and on the last hole he duly stuffed one in there close from 160 yards to beat me, so that was a bit of a bummer but totally like the Tiger we’re used to seeing.
"So contend? I absolutely think he can," Kuchar said. "The British Open, the knowledge he has, the skill set he has – yeah, he can definitely contend."
To do so, Woods will have to prove another critic wrong. Strange’s ESPN colleague and the winner of the 1993 PGA Championship Paul Azinger believes the player who will tee it up at Hoylake this week has ruined his game with too many swing changes.
"I think where Tiger has made his mistake is he's dabbled with the fingerprints of his golf swing, not necessarily the fundamentals," Azinger said during last week’s teleconference. "Tiger's quest to get better, I think he's actually gotten a little bit worse."
As if to make Azinger’s point, Woods clanged a mishit off a spectator during Sunday’s practice round. Reports, however, were that the foul ball on the 16th was his one error and that Woods planned to keep his big club in the bag this week.
Woods grabbed that third Open Championship title at Hoylake without a driver (he ranked 139th in driving distance in ’06 and was DFL in that stat -- among others -- this year, according to Strange), but that dry, brown course of yesteryear is no more and Tiger will have to negotiate a green, flourishing track this time around.
Big-hitting Gary Woodland (14th in length off the tee but 102nd in accuracy) saw no problem with that plan and may employ the same strategy.
"I didn’t see where I would hit many drivers out there," Woodland, who arrived ahead of his clubs and could only chip and putt with Woods and Kuchar, told Corrigan. "Tiger used some three-woods and looked like he was striping it well."
We’ll know soon enough whether Woods can back up his words with his play but one thing’s for sure: the spotlight’s back on the world No. 7.
"I expected a nice quiet practice round today," Kuchar, with his usual smile, told Corrigan. "But that’s never going to happen when you’re playing with Tiger Woods."