Friday 26 December 2014

Tiger Woods ready to contend at Hoylake, says Kuchar

Karl MacGinty

Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30

Tiger Woods of the US plays a shot from the bunker near the 15th green during a practice round at Hoylake
Tiger Woods of the US plays a shot from the bunker near the 15th green during a practice round at Hoylake
Justin Rose with the Scottish Open Trophy

TIGER WOODS struck just three balls with his driver yesterday, all of them on the practice range, as he took a tried-and-trusted route around Hoylake.

And that was two more than he used during all 72 holes at Royal Liverpool in 2006 as Woods retained the Claret Jug with a performance that was strategically inspired and technically brilliant.

Yet Hoylake is greener now and therefore playing longer than it was eight years ago, while the north-westerly breeze which whipped across the Wirral yesterday afternoon gave Woods a lot more food for thought entering this week's British Open than he had in the still, dead heat of 2006.

Though Tiger hit only irons and fairway woods off the tee during nine holes on Saturday and again yesterday, when he played all 18 with fellow American Matt Kuchar, he's certain to have to change tack in the championship if course and weather conditions prove as difficult as forecast.

Woods looks in top-class physical shape, especially for a man who underwent surgery on March 31 to relieve a pinched nerve in his back, while Kuchar, his stablemate at Excel sports management, was certain Tiger can contend for his 15th Major title and first since the 2008 US Open.

"Absolutely," Kuchar replied. "With the knowledge he has and the skills he has, Tiger definitely can contend."

When he missed the cut by four shots at Congressional last month on his only appearance since surgery, Woods showed inevitable ring rust, particularly in his short game.

So, with respect to Kuchar, it'll take a near-miracle this week to match the world's hottest form players on a demanding links in his very next outing.

None hotter right now than 2013 US Open champ Justin Rose (33) who wrapped up a two-stroke victory at the Scottish Open yesterday with a fabulous final-round 65 on a classic seaside course at Royal Aberdeen that gave everyone who played it a real foretaste of things to come on the Wirral.

Shane Lowry was another who left Scotland with a real spring in his step after a splendid closing 66, the Clara man's first bogey-free round in nearly six months since January's Qatar Masters, propelled him into a share of fourth place on 10-under.

Lowry, who got off to a flying start with three birdies in his first four holes and holed-out sweetly from inside six feet for an eagle three at 12, banked €148,039, propelling him up to 17th place in the Race To Dubai with a total €754,411 in a season highlighted by his second place behind Rory McIlroy at Wentworth in May.

Ireland's multiple Major champions McIlroy and Padraig Harrington also brought their week in Aberdeen to a morale-boosting conclusion.

After his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in the first two rounds, when McIlroy followed an imperious 64 on Thursday with a calamitous 78 the following day, he clambered back up to 14th place (worth €56,432) with satisfying weekend rounds of 68 and 67.

TOUCH

Harrington, meanwhile, found his scoring touch during a closing 67 that featured seven birdies, a bogey and a double-bogey six at four after he'd picked up a shot on each of the first three holes.

A share of 27th on three-under (€32,919) might sound like small beer to a man who counts two Claret Jugs among his three Major titles.

Yet after failing to win either in Europe or the US since August 2008 and having missed the Masters and US Open this year for the first time since 2000, he'll welcome every ounce of encouragement he can get heading for Hoylake.

Phil Mickelson also took faith for his defence of his British Open title from the nicely-crafted final round 65 that lifted him into a share of 11th on eight-under.

Incidentally, Sweden's Kristoffer Broberg will make his first Major start this week on the back of his runner-up finish behind Rose, while Tyrrell Hatton from High Wycombe and Glasgow's Scott Jamieson landed the other two available berths at Hoylake.

Yet Tiger will command most attention here over the next few days and, even if he mixed the sublime with the wayward yesterday, his spirit is willing and the flesh appears strong.

"We were talking about him coming back so soon (at Congressional) and how crazy I thought it was but he believes it was the right thing to do," said Kuchar. "Just to get a feel of just how fit he was and how well he can do.

"The biggest thing is he's recovering well and after a round is getting up the next day and feeling good," he added.

Though a long-enough hitter himself, several of Kuchar's drives fell short of Tiger's three-wood. Yet it was a flash of magic from Woods at the last which most impressed him.

"We had a little match going on 18 and he stuffed one in there from 160 yards to beat me. That was a bit of a bummer but it was more like the Tiger we're used to seeing."

Rose, meanwhile, had not played the Scottish event for the last two years but said: "I thought I would try and do a Phil (Mickelson) this year and put it on my schedule. So far so good.

"I've won two in a row now so I've put the pressure on myself. There's no-one to blame but me. It's uncharted territory for me, I've never won two in a row before, never mind three.

"It's unbelievable to be back in the winners' circle so quickly but right now I am feeling great. I don't feel the two wins have taken a lot out of me. I feel that I've taken it in my stride.

"The Open is going to come around quickly so tonight is going to be calm and relaxed.

"I will enjoy the moment but my mind will definitely be back in the game as of tomorrow."

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