Aiming to hone a Hoylake plan

7/16/2014 - Golf Tiger Woods
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HOYLAKE, England -- Armed with titanium drivers, high-tech golf balls, swing coaches and psychologists, few of today's players can relate to the way the game was played at the end of the 19th century, especially at Royal Liverpool, where the 143rd Open Championship begins Thursday on England's northwest coast.

So often, the place where the game's oldest major championship is contested can be as big a part of the story as those who play it. Eleven times the Open has visited the course simply known as Hoylake, starting in 1897, when amateur Harold Hilton won the event being played for just the second time in England.

Over the years here, the winners have represented seven different countries. American amateur Bobby Jones won the second leg of the Grand Slam here in 1930. Australian Peter Thomson, a five-time champ, won his third in a row here in 1956. Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo -- the year before his infamous scorecard error at the Masters -- won in 1967.

Due to logistical issues, the Open did not return until 2006. Hoylake is a town of just 5,700 people, and staging such a big event can prove difficult. The event came alive eight years ago as Tiger Woods won his third Claret Jug in emotional fashion, torching a course that was already baked and burned-out from a summer heat wave.

Woods shot 18 under par in winning his 11th major title, famously negotiating his way around the course by playing short of the menacing bunkers and hitting just one driver. He positioned himself mostly with 2-irons off the tee, and the strategy led to one of the top performances of his career.

Can he do it again? Or perhaps more appropriately, can anyone elect to play Royal Liverpool with that kind of strategy and win the 143rd Open Championship?

Unlike eight years ago, the temperatures are cool, the grass lush, the conditions far different.

"You will see a lot of guys out here with an iron [off the tee]," Woods said. "It depends on the golf course. This golf course is giving it up. There's lots of roll, even though we just got rain. The forecast is supposed to be clear. It's supposed to dry up a bit. And most of the holes, the ball is getting out there."

Woods made that comment Saturday after seeing Royal Liverpool for the first time since his victory in 2006. Yes, it had rained, and the ball was moving along the fairways quite nicely.

But more rain came Wednesday, and unless the wind blows fiercely, the course won't be anywhere as firm as it was when poofs of dust flew up in 2006 whenever a ball landed. The local fire department was on the ready in case of a brush fire.

"You're talking about one of the better long iron players maybe the game has ever seen," said Graeme McDowell about the way Woods played the course in 2006. "Not many guys can be as patient and as disciplined as he's shown us over the years. He has a special type of focus and zone that he can get into.

"And he certainly got there in 2006. He played the golf course -- call it defensive, call it conservative, very safe -- and just relied on the great approach play and great patience to take the golf course apart."

That remains one of the most underrated aspects of Woods' victory. So much of the discussion was about him not using his driver, but what that meant was extremely long approach shots to the greens. His former coach, Hank Haney, has many times said that that week was among the top long-iron performances of Woods' career.

In recent years at the major championships, specifically the past two Opens at Royal Lytham and Muirfield, Woods tried to follow a similar approach, with less successful results. He wasn't so much avoiding the driver -- although he hit few at each tournament -- but trying to play conservative, hoping to avoid big mistakes and taking his opportunities when possible.

The good news: He finished among the top five in fairways hit both weeks. The bad news: He either hit too few greens or didn't putt well enough.

Woods finished third in 2012 at Lytham -- his best showing in a major since his runner-up effort at the 2009 PGA Championship -- and was sixth last year. But in each case, he failed to break par on the weekend when in position to win.

"I don't think it's going to be an option to hit iron off every tee box," said Rory McIlroy, who got a couple of looks at the course prior to the Scottish Open last week. "I think you're going to have to be slightly aggressive off the tee and take some things on. We've got four par-5s that are all reachable if you take driver off the tee.

"The ball is not going to run too much on the fairways. A little bit. But everyone is different. I feel like you've got to be slightly aggressive off the tees here this week, just because it's not as firm as it was in '06."

And McIlroy also believes the par 5s are a big key. There are four of them, all reachable in 2 shots. Woods played them in 14 under in 2006, a huge part to his victory.

But then, he could reach them despite not hitting driver off the tee. He had plenty of length with his 2-iron or 3-wood off the tee, and the quickness of the surfaces made that task easier. Now, not so much.

For what it's worth, Woods hit plenty of irons off tees in the practice rounds, even on holes that played into the wind. Perhaps his best plan is to make sure he stays in the fairway and take it from there.

"It's important in links golf to keep the ball out of the bunkers," said Justin Rose, who is coming off consecutive victories at the Quicken Loans National and Scottish Open. "And whether it's a 2-iron, 3-iron or 6-iron ... it's all based upon keeping it out of the bunkers. You can't play [successful] links golf with pot bunkers. They are true penalties.

"Typically if you take on the first set of bunkers, you're not always rewarded in links golf, because very often they are so well-designed that there's the next set of bunkers at 280 [yards], 290, 300. So your decision is to take all of the bunkers out, normally."

Then there is defending champion Phil Mickelson. His approach in '06 differed greatly from Woods' plan. Of course, Mickelson finished tied for 22nd, 11 strokes behind Woods. But Lefty didn't think it was possible to hold back and play such long shots into the greens.

"The course was so firm, you couldn't stop the ball with a mid-iron," Mickelson said. "And we needed to come into some of these greens with an 8, 9, wedge downwind, because it was so firm.

"I think it's going to allow us to be a little more conservative off the tee and a little more aggressive into the greens. That's my take."

Woods' only driver came at the 16th hole during the first round. He didn't find the fairway, and he put the club away for the rest of the tournament. He led the field in fairways hit, was second in greens in regulation and averaged exactly 30 putts per round.

During the final round, he hit three 3-woods and the rest irons. Avoiding those bunkers was a big part of his strategy, and he missed just one fairway in a 5-under-par 67 that helped him win by 2 strokes.

Much has changed since then. Woods has missed six majors due to injury, including the first two this year. And he has played in 18 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open without a win.

He's also changed coaches and swings and is playing his first major since the PGA Championship last August. There remain plenty of doubts about whether his strategy would work this time -- for him, for anyone -- and whether he is up to the task of contending after so little golf in 2014.

Woods made a few headlines when he answered a question Tuesday about what an acceptable finish would be for him this week with one word: first. It seems a reach at this point, but five-time Open champion Tom Watson had no problem with the confidence.

"Tiger might very well win the tournament," Watson said. "I wouldn't write off Tiger Woods for a long time, the way he plays the game."

The way he plays Royal Liverpool -- as well as the manner in which others try to navigate the storied links -- will of course be large themes in the venue's 12th staging of the Open Championship.