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Tiger Woods, in only 2nd tournament in 4 months, still sets the bar high at Open

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HOYLAKE, England - Tiger Woods was an early arrival to the British Open with hopes of avoiding an early departure.

Woods has played only two competitive rounds in the last four months because of back pain that led to surgery. That's why he chose to get to England a day earlier than usual — Saturday — to get acclimated to links golf at Royal Liverpool.

It's nothing like he remembers from his two-shot victory in 2006.

Hoylake was brown and dusty that year, and the ball was bouncing along at such speed that Woods hit only one driver the entire week. That was on the 16th hole, and the shot wound up on the 17th fairway. He still made birdie.

"The golf course is a little bit softer than what it was in '06," Woods said on Tuesday. "I've played three practice rounds now and have had three different winds. So that's been helpful to be able to see the golf course in different conditions."

As an example of the change, Woods pulled out a driver on the par-5 fifth hole with the wind in his face. His tee shot landed in the fairway.

That he already has played three practice rounds has been encouraging.

Woods missed the cut at Congressional in his return to competition three weeks ago, though he was pleased that he felt no pain from March 31 back surgery. He even has been to the gym twice in the last couple of days.

Woods played 12 holes on Saturday and a full 18 on Sunday and Tuesday, taking a break Monday to work out and then go to the practice range.

"It's one of the reasons why I came over a little earlier," he said. " I went to Geneva for a day with Rolex, but I came here a day earlier than I normally would to have an extra day in there, as well as possibly taking a day off, if need be. And it worked out."

As for his goals? They haven't changed.

When asked what would be a reasonable result in his first major of the year, Woods replied, "First.

"That's always the case."

The back surgery forced him to miss the Masters for the first time, and then the U.S. Open. The last time Woods had this much time off with so little competition before a major was in 2010 when he returned from the chaos in his personal life. He tied for fourth at the Masters.

It might help that he at least has won at Royal Liverpool, even if the course has changed dramatically.

Woods has changed, too.

His victory eight years ago produced more raw emotion than ever for Woods. It was his first major since the death of his father, Earl, two months earlier. He sobbed on the shoulders of his caddie and then his wife. Woods now has a different caddie and he is divorced.

"My life has certainly changed a lot since then," Woods said. "That was a very emotional week. As you all know, I pressed pretty hard at Augusta that year, trying to win it, because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play a major championship. And then I didn't play well at the (U.S.) Open — missed the cut there miserably. And then came here and just felt at peace. 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. And that was certainly one of them."

The others were at the 1997 Masters, which he won by 12 shots; the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he won by 15 shots; and 2000 British Open at St. Andrews, which he won by eight shots to complete the career Grand Slam.

Woods has won the career slam twice more since then, running his total to 14 majors by winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 despite not having played in two months because of torn ligaments in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left leg.

He said that victory, with the odds against him, should be a reminder not to count him out.

And he's not ruling out his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors. Woods, who is 38, was asked if he would play well into his 40s and even his early 50s if it meant a chance to break the Nicklaus benchmark.

"Hopefully, I have it done by then. But I'm really looking forward to that cart," he said, referring to Champions Tour players being allowed to ride in a cart.

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