|Tiger Woods during a practice round, in Hoylake, on Wednesday
Hoylake: After missing the US Masters and the US Open following a back operation, Tiger Woods returns to major championship action at the British Open, to start on Thursday, and once again he is the hot topic of conversation.
The 38-year-old American is normally the clear favourite when he tees it up at any tournament but the bookmakers seem sceptical of his title chances at Hoylake, rating him a 20-1 shot to land the 15th Major victory of his career.
Having gone six years since capturing the last of his majors — at the 2008 US Open — the fear factor is still prevalent among his rivals even though it is not quite what it once was.
“It’s not fear. It’s respect,” five-time Open champion Tom Watson said. “You have to respect what his capabilities have been and probably will be again.
“When I was playing it was always, ‘Where’s Jack Nicklaus on the leaderboard? That’s the first name I looked for. Then it was, ‘Where’s Lee Trevino? Where’s Johnny Miller?’. In my early career those were the guys but it was mainly Jack,” added Watson.
“Throughout my entire career it was Jack first and I guarantee you that the players looking at these new electronic scoreboards are going to be looking for Tiger Woods’s name this week.”
World No. 7 Woods goes into the third Major of the season having played only two competitive rounds of golf in four months.
Asked what an acceptable finish would be here, Woods gave the questioner a steely glare and a response that left no one in any doubt.
“First,” said the former world No. 1. “That’s always the case.”
Woods added that the two rounds he played at the Quicken Loans National event in Maryland last month gave him a huge psychological lift, even though he missed the cut.
“Playing at Congressional was a big boost,” he explained. “The fact I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain. “I’ve gotten stronger, I’ve gotten more explosive and I’ve gotten faster since then... which is great.”
Woods, though, faces an uphill task in challenging for the coveted Claret Jug with so many world-class players at the peak of their powers.
World No. 1 Adam Scott is desperate to make it third time lucky after finishing as runner-up in the Open in 2012 and tied third last year.
Masters champion Bubba Watson, US Open winner Martin Kaymer and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy will also have plenty of support from the fans. The bookmakers’ favourite is Justin Rose who is bidding for a rare hat-trick of tour wins after landing the Quicken Loans title and last week’s Scottish Open crown.
While all these players are in good shape, Phil Mickelson will be hoping to return to top form soon.
‘Bringing On Back The Good Times’ was a chart hit in the 1960s and the sentiment could be true of Mickelson this week as he bids to retain the British Open title he won so spectacularly last year. The popular American produced a memorable closing 66 to emerge from the pack and snatch victory at Muirfield 12 months ago, his first in golf’s oldest Major championship at the 20th attempt.
Mickelson has suffered something of a reaction since then, failing to return to the winner’s circle and recording just two top-10 finishes, but he says it is simply a matter of time before he gets his form back.
“I believe the next five years are going to be some of the best in my career,” the 44-year-old said. “It obviously hasn’t been a good year and normally I would be discouraged or frustrated but I’m not. I know I haven’t played well, but the parts feel a lot better than the whole.
“I don’t know when it will all click together, if it will be this week, in three weeks or in a month...but it should be soon.”