HOYLAKE, England – Eighteen.
That’s how many major championships Tiger Woods has played since he last hoisted Grand Slam glory, which is significant because it has always been Woods’ magic number.
It was Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major victories that Woods had tacked to the wall of his childhood home in Cypress, Calif., and the standard that has driven him throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Getting to 18, matching Nicklaus, was always the headline.
That was always the fine print, particularly when he was winning majors at an alarming clip, but since that last walk-off at Torrey Pines in 2008 Woods has come up short time and time again due to equal parts ignominious play, increasingly deep tee sheets and injuries.
It is the latter that was the topic du jour when Woods arrived for his media meet and greet on Tuesday at Royal Liverpool, site of his last Open Championship victory in 2006.
“I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't move around the house. I couldn't do anything. That made me appreciate just how fortunate I was to be able to play at that level for such a long period of time,” Woods said of life before back surgery.
Pick apart his game, swing and psyche at your own risk, the primary culprit behind Woods’ Grand Slam swoon has been his inability to play in Grand Slam events.
Since that historic victory in 2008 at Torrey Pines, Woods has been sidelined by various medical ailments – most recently it was a microdiscectomy surgery on March 31 – and missed five major starts.
Of all the obstacles standing between Woods and his major mountain, it will be his ability, or in recent history his inability, to avoid the MRI machine.
But if Woods gleaned anything from his most recent bout with the OR it is a much more reasoned approach to his health. At 38 he has come to terms with the reality that he is no longer the Man of Steel.
Too many surgeries, too many missed opportunities – like this year’s first two major turns – have forced him to come to grips with the reality that his body is on a ball count.
No longer can he punish himself with endless hours on the practice tee in South Florida. The days of grinding through injuries with force of will are gone, replaced by the realities of age and an aggressive swing.
Even last month at Congressional Woods took the long view. Although he missed the cut at his Quicken Loans National, he made a statement to himself that life could return to normal.
“Playing at Congressional was a big boost to me. The fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain. It wasn't like that the previous time I played,” Woods said. “I've gotten more explosive, I've gotten faster since then. That's going to be the case, I'm only going to get stronger and faster, which is great.”
He can also take some solace from his return to Hoylake. Just two months removed from the death of his father, Earl, Woods put on a clinic – hitting 48 of 56 fairways for the week (first in the field), 58 of 72 greens in regulation (T-2) and just a single driver for 72 holes.
In a rare moment of retrospect, Woods recounted that triumph eight years ago in nostalgic terms – the calm that he enjoyed on Sunday, the control that led to arguably the best ball-striking week of his career.
“I felt at peace. On Sunday I really felt calm out there. It was surreal at the time,” Woods said. “I really felt that my dad was with me on that one round. I said it back then in ’06 that it was like having my 15th club. I felt that type of at peace when I was out there.”
This Open will be different, thanks to fairways that are shimmering on the greener side of Pinehurst and a forecast that looks like a scene out of “The Day After Tomorrow” (rain chances range from 80 percent on Saturday to 60 percent on the Sunday).
This much is certain, Woods will hit more than one driver this week at Royal Liverpool and those otherworldly numbers he posted in 2006 will be difficult to duplicate.
The encouraging part for Woods, however, is that he is at Hoylake. Baby steps. You know the drill, you can’t win an Open Championship if you don’t play in an Open Championship.
While the talk about town has fixated on Woods’ seemingly slim chances to claim his fourth claret jug – the British odds makers have him at 25-to-1, well down the betting board – he was quick to remind those in attendance that he has won a major straight off the DL before.
“If you remember in ’08 I had knee surgery right after the Masters. I teed it up at the U.S. Open and won a U.S. Open,” said Woods, who arrived in the Wirral peninsula on Saturday and added a third practice round on Tuesday alongside Hunter Mahan and David Duval.
Whether he can duplicate that feat remains to be seen, but for Woods his quest to Jack’s record and beyond depends entirely on his health and that key component seems ready to resume the march to 18.