One of the most indelible moments of Tiger Woods’s storied career is his tearful embrace with caddie Steve Williams after winning the 2006 British Open, his first victory after his father’s death two months prior.
Woods tapped in for a two-stroke win over Chris DiMarco, unleashed an unbridled roar complete with a vintage fist pump, then collapsed into Williams’ arms. An emotional Woods wouldn’t let go.
This week, he’s back. Back at Royal Liverpool for the first Open at the storied course since 2006. Back at a major championship for the first time since his uninspiring 40th-place finish in last year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
Since returning from his March 31 back surgery, Woods has played just two competitive rounds -- a 74-75 to miss only his 10th career cut at the Quicken Loans National at the end of June -- but has consistently stated that he’s ready to compete at the highest level.
On Tuesday at Royal Liverpool he once again said that his back won't be an issue.
"Once I started getting stronger and more stable, I could work on my explosiveness and start getting my speed back,” Woods said at his pre-tournament press conference. “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, pretty darn close."
Woods, a three-time Open Championship winner, dissected Royal Liverpool in the 2006 British Open, hitting driver just once in 72 holes. He was surgical that week while hitting 48 of 56 fairways and 58 of 72 greens -- which ranked first and second in the field, respectively -- and landed in just three bunkers all week. He managed his way around the golf course better than anyone else.
“I came here and just felt at peace," Woods said as he spoke about his last Open Championship win. "I really, really played well. On Sunday I really felt calm out there. It was surreal at the time. I've had a few moments like that in majors where I've felt that way on a Sunday. I wouldn't necessarily say it was every day but certainly on Sunday I really felt that my dad was with me on that one round. I said it back then that it was like having my 15th club."
Eight years later, a reflective Woods acknowledges his life is “very different than it was then.” He’s no longer the game’s most dominant player and hasn’t notched a top-10 since the Barclays last August. This year’s Royal Liverpool setup appears slightly more lush than the burnt-out brown of 2006, which Woods used to his advantage.
When forecasting Woods’ chances, the course conditions create even more uncertainty.
For the first time since May 2012, he’s outside the top 5 in the World Rankings at No. 7. His major titles outnumber the combined total of six players ahead of him 14 to 4, but each of those four victories won by Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Justin Rose have been earned since Tiger won his last. Between the long major drought, the recovery from back surgery and the course setup that will likely force him to hit more drivers, typically his weakest club, it feels like almost any outcome is possible for Woods this week.
None of that changes his expectations. When asked what would be an acceptable finish, Woods didn’t hesitate.