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Tiger Woods is looking forward to a full four rounds on the links at Royal Liverpool. (Photo: Getty Images)
Tiger Woods is looking forward to a full four rounds on the links at Royal Liverpool. (Photo: Getty Images)

Defending champ Woods says his game is back on course

Tiger Woods says he shook off the rust at the Western Open, and his expectations are high this week. He even brought his 2-iron out of an eight-month retirement to hit low, penetrating tee shots that run endlessly on the baked fairways.

HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- The lazy atmosphere of late afternoon on the day before the Open Championship transformed into a minor frenzy in front of the Royal Liverpool clubhouse Wednesday.

Photographers scrambled for position in front of the practice green. Fans strolling toward the gates fought for a view behind the ropes. Even some of the players stopped what they were doing to watch.

Getting a glimpse of Tiger Woods has been rare this week.

He arrived at Royal Liverpool on the weekend when there were no crowds, playing Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The next two days, he teed off so early that he was done before most fans arrived at the course. On Wednesday, he didn't even play, showing up in the late afternoon to hit balls on the range and stroke a few putts.

It will be more important to be seen on the weekend -- any time this weekend.

The defending Open champion, Woods will be trying to bounce back from missing the cut in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where consecutive rounds of 76 sent him home early for the first time in a major.

"I took a lot of time off prior to the U.S. Open and I wasn't hitting the ball as well as I wanted to in competition," Woods said. "But I fixed those mistakes prior to the Western [Open], and I got back into the competitive flow again."

Woods was in jeopardy of another missed cut at the Western Open two weeks ago until shooting 67-66 to work his way up the leader board, and he got within one shot of Trevor Immelman until finishing two behind. Still, it was a step in the right direction, especially going to the Open.

"It's nice when you play four rounds," he said. "I had two extra days there at the Western to get back into the flow of things, and the weekend I played great. So I feel like I'm back into playing again after taking such a long time off."

The reason for the long layoff -- he has played only six competitive rounds since the Masters -- was the May 3 death of his father.

Woods still cannot shake questions about his father, how he is coping and how long it might take him to come to terms. But in this case, some of the questions brought back good memories, and pertinent ones.

Earl Woods accompanied his 19-year-old son to Carnoustie in 1995 for the Scottish Open, his first taste of links golf. Woods opened with rounds of 69-71 before the wind picked up, scores shot up and he tied for 29th, 17 shots out of the lead.

"He absolutely loved it when I played at Carnoustie, because it was one of the very few times that he thought I was able to use my imagination and create shots," Woods said. "It presents so many different options. And he thoroughly enjoyed it, watching me go out there shaping shots and hitting all those weird shots. He always got a big kick out of that."

That's what will be required of Woods at Royal Liverpool.

The biggest change is in his bag, where he is bringing the 2-iron out of an eight-month retirement to hit low, penetrating tee shots that run endlessly on baked fairways, some of them so bare they have more turf than grass.

Standing behind the 14th green on Tuesday, he tried to bump a pitch up the slope toward the green, and when it rolled back to his feet, he tried again with the putter.

"We don't play golf courses like this each and every week. And we certainly don't ever play a golf course this fast," Woods said. "And those times, you have to be able to control your golf ball in the air, you have to control your spin. It's not like you can hit a marginal shot and expect it to be OK."

Expectations are different this time.

Woods plays the Open as well as any other major besides the Masters, finishing in the top 10 six out of his nine starts as a pro. He won last year at St. Andrews for the second time, by five shots over Colin Montgomerie. He manufactures shots as well as anyone in the game.

But there has not been much of a buzz about him this week.

Part of that is because no one has seen much of him. He has not won since Doral, and his nine starts on the PGA Tour this season are the fewest of anyone in the top 50 on the money list.

And the focus on the majors has shifted to Phil Mickelson, who has won three of the last 10. The Masters champion was on the verge of winning three straight majors at the U.S. Open -- a chance to show up at Royal Liverpool with his own Grand Slam on the line -- until taking double-bogey on the final hole at Winged Foot to finish one shot behind Geoff Ogilvy.

Peter Thomson, who won at Hoylake in 1956 for his third consecutive claret jug, also weighed in on Woods.

"If he never wins another tournament, his reputation is made," Thomson said. "But he's after higher, more glorious heights than anyone's ever dreamt of, I think. But he's having a bit of a stumble, I think. He'll play well again, I'm sure."

There remain questions about Woods' focus two months after his father died.

Ernie Els was going through the list of top players and how well they play in the majors when he got to Woods, whom he still believes is the man to beat when Woods is on his game.

"Tiger, if his mind is 100 percent on golf this week, he's probably the guy to beat again," Ernie Els said. "That's a talent."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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