The eyes of golf fans around the world will be trained on Royal Liverpool this week, as the magnificent Hoylake links plays host to the 143rd Open Championship.
And, whilst a field of most of the world’s best players will assemble on the Wirral, it would not be unreasonable to say that most of the focus will be on one man – Tiger Woods.
The 14-time major winner ran out a comfortable winner the last time the Claret Jug was contested over this particular part of England’s Golf Coast. That, though, remains the most recent of the American’s three Open wins.
Victory this week would not only move Woods within three major victories of matching Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 wins but also break a winless drought in golf’s four marquee events stretching back to the 2008 US Open.
However, question marks hover over the fitness of the world No.7. Thursday will see him play just his third competitive round since the beginning of March. A back injury has kept him on the sidelines between the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the Quicken Loans National Championship three weeks ago, where he missed the cut on the PGA Tour for just the tenth time in his career.
“I'm very excited to get there. Excited to play that golf course." - Tiger Woods
Whether or not he can contend at Hoylake, far less win the championship, remains to be seen. Even so, the 39-year-old insists he is up for the challenge posed by England’s second oldest course.
“I'm very excited,” he remarked. “I'm very excited to get there. Excited to play that golf course. I don't know how it's changed since we played it. I know it's been a bone-dry winter in England. When we played it , it was hard and fast and brown. So we'll see what happens when we get there.”
Woods, at 16/1 with a leading bookmaker, won’t have it all his own way at Hoylake. Defending champion Phil Mickelson will fancy his chances of winning back-to-back titles following a strong performance at Royal Aberdeen in last week’s Scottish Open.
Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott will also surely be the mix, along with the likes of Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, and US Open champion Martin Kaymer.
For Hoylake, this week represents its 12th time hosting golf’s oldest professional championship. That makes it the second most used venue in England – behind Royal St George’s on 14 – and the fifth most used overall.
The course itself has changed little from eight years ago, with only a handful of modifications having been made by organisers, the R&A.
The somewhat embattled organisation will be hoping for a good spectator turn-out following last year’s disappointing attendance at Muirfield. Despite excellent weather in East Lothian, only 142,036 people were clocked going through the gates. They can have some reason for optimism this year, though. The 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool attracted 230,000 paying fans - the second biggest in the championship’s history.
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