HOYLAKE, England - It was a day of nostalgia and hope for Tiger Woods, returning to the scene of a victory that touched his emotions and the possibility his best days are not necessarily in the past.
Woods seemed almost a sympathetic figure Tuesday as he spoke of a triumph that climaxed with tears, a victory in the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool -- where the 2014 tournament begins Thursday -- and his struggles of the past few months.
Back pain forced him to undergo microdiscectomy spine surgery March 31 and to miss this year's two previous majors, the Masters and U.S. Open. After a warmup event, the Quicken Loans tournament last month outside Washington, D.C., in which he missed the cut, Woods was determined to make the British Open.
Looking back eight years, Woods said, "My life is very different than it was then." Particularly the way he won in a time when seemingly he could do no wrong, on course or off.
The victory over a dry, dusty links course gave him a second consecutive Open, along with the 2005 at St. Andrews, and with wins in the 2005 Masters and 2006 PGA, four majors in a space of some 16 months. He's won only two since.
"That was a very emotional week," he said of 2006. "As you 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."
Earl Woods died of cancer in May of 2006.
"And then I didn't play well at the U.S. Open [at Winged Foot]. Missed the cut there miserably. And then came here and just felt at peace. I really played well. On Sunday I felt a calm out there. It was surreal at the time. I've had moments where I've felt that way on a Sunday, and that was certainly one of them."
Those moments haven't occurred in a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. In fact the last couple of years, including the 2013 British Open at Muirfield won by Phil Mickelson, Woods slipped back the final day.
Woods, now 38, has had a tumultuous few years starting in 2009 with disclosures of marital infidelity and then a divorce. He was asked what was more difficult to handle, emotional or physical problems.
"Well, you can have emotional turmoil and still play well," he said. "Physically, when you're hurt it's tough to play well, especially over a long period of time."
He won the 2008 U.S. Open on a knee so bad he underwent surgery a few days later. Woods said his back injury was worse. "I could still chip and putt with the knee," Woods said, "but with the back I couldn't get out of bed."
The question here is whether, healthy but relatively unprepared, he can be a contender this week. Asked what would be an acceptable finish, Woods gave his usual response, "First."
Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner and current commentator for ESPN, doesn't think that is possible. On a conference call a few days ago, Strange said of Woods, "I hope he makes the cut. I don't think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leader board come the weekend."
Woods acknowledges the difficulty to make it back to the top.
"I think it gets harder every year," he said of winning a major, "just because the fields get deeper. More guys with a chance to win."
More guys to ruin the dreams of Tiger Woods.