Tiger Woods returns to site of great triumph

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the British Open Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the British Open Golf Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Course in Hoylake, England on July 23, 2006. Photo Credit: AP / Jon Super

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HOYLAKE, England -- The timing is perfect. The World Cup finally exits the sporting stage and starting Thursday ready to step on are Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy -- and for the first time this year in a major championship -- Tiger Woods.

We're in Beatles Country, for those with a nostalgic bent, across the Mersey River from their city, at a golf course formally named Royal Liverpool but known more familiarly by its location, Hoylake, the town where the River Dee Estuary flows into the Irish Sea.

Hum a few bars of "Get Back," which Woods has done, getting back to the grind of pro golf -- yes, he had a teaser, a test case last month, but this is the real thing -- and getting back to the place he last won an Open championship.

That was 2006, when Woods, figuratively walking on water, and walking all over the other competitors, in 16 months won the 2005 Masters, the 2005 and 2006 Open championships (or British Opens, if you choose) and the 2006 PGA championship. Ah yes, the good, not-so-old days.

But he hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, and before missing some four months because of back surgery, went in reverse when seemingly he had a chance, including last year's Open championship at Muirfield, Scotland.

That was won by Mickelson, despite his own doubts he would succeed at golf on a links course, the bumpy, sandy, bunker-filled locales where the Open always is held. Now at age 44, and perhaps in decline after the triumph, Mickelson defends.

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Saturday, Woods and Mickelson -- and McIlroy -- were in different places, Tiger flying in from the states to play a few holes at Hoylake, on an afternoon that went from sunshine to rain, and Mickelson and McIlroy 350 miles to the north where they were playing the third round of the Scottish Open.

Before looking to the future, it might be well to recall the past. That 2006 Open here was held on parched fairways -- "The Plains of Hoylake," was a headline in The Guardian -- and Woods used a driver only once, the 16th hole of the first round.

And when he won for the first time since the death of his father, Earl, in May (remember, Tiger missed the cut in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot), Woods put his head on the shoulder of caddie Steve Williams and wept openly.

Hoylake will be different this time. There has been precipitation. There is rough, if the scraggly kind.

"The rough is up," McIlroy told John Huggan, a Scottish journalist. "You need to avoid that. And you need to avoid the bunkers. If you drive into the sand at Hoylake, you're hitting out sideways . . . But generally, though, Hoylake is a very scoreable course.

"All four par-5s are reachable. So we'll see guys quite under par in decent weather."

That's always certain. What's uncertain is the weather. At The Open you can't fool -- or fool with -- Mother Nature.

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