Commentary

Tiger Woods can win this Open

Updated: July 17, 2014, 5:08 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

HOYLAKE, England -- Tiger Woods was attacking balls on the practice range with ferocity and purpose and listening intently to his coach, Sean Foley, as the instructor carried on like he would with a young beginner, swinging his arms to demonstrate the improved approach he desired.

Foley moved to the side and took video of his student's swing, and Woods kept blasting away under the hot sun, following more than 4½ hours on the Royal Liverpool course with a 40-minute session at the dusty, no-frills range across the street.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Peter MorrisonJust as he did in his first round at the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake -- which he won -- Tiger Woods used only a single driver off the tee Thursday.

Sure, a lot of guys practice after they play. But not a lot of guys endured back surgery on March 31, and not a lot of guys played two lousy rounds at their own tournament after that back surgery before jumping into their first major in 11 months.

So what does the extra work suggest? For one, this guy really wants to win the Open Championship. And two, this guy really believes he can win the Open Championship.

And he can do it, of course. He's Tiger Woods, after all. You can already make the case he's the greatest player ever, and if that case isn't convincing enough, hey, he's definitely in the top two.

At some point Woods is going to end his majors drought (now at six years and counting) and win No. 15. Why not here? Why not now?

Woods won at Royal Liverpool in 2006; the Open Championship is just nutty enough to allow for an unlikely sequel; and Woods put himself in play with a 3-under 69 in a first round that had throwback Tiger written all over it.

Remember when the 38-year-old Woods compared himself to the aging Michael Jordan -- the Washington Wizards' Michael Jordan -- at his event at Congressional a few weeks back?

"As I've aged," Woods said then, "I can't play the way I used to."

He spoke about the bigger, stronger, more athletic kids hitting the tour these days before saying: "It's changed dramatically. But just like MJ, I've got a fadeaway now."

Thursday's performance was one hell of a fadeaway jumper from Woods. He started out bogey-bogey (he was lucky he didn't double the first hole), and yet he didn't outwardly punish himself or his clubs as he's done in the past. Instead of getting mad, Woods got even.

He steadied his round with some pars, and had a birdie at the par-5 fifth, and refused to let a couple of near-misses drag him down. Woods was standing in the 11th fairway, 1 over for the day, when he heard the roars behind him for Rory McIlroy, who was tearing it up on his way to a 66 and the opening-round lead.

Maybe something stirred inside Tiger, maybe not. But five minutes later he was rolling in a putt from off the green, pumping his right fist for his first show of old Tiger emotion all day, and then ripping off five birdies in six holes in a charge that didn't remind anyone of a Michael Jordan fadeaway.

No, that was Michael Jordan with his tongue out, dunking on Patrick Ewing's head.

Woods walked in his birdie putt at the 15th, then executed a delicate up-and-down at 16 to move to 3 under. On the 17th green, he lifted his putter toward the sky in a premature celebration as a long birdie attempt lipped out.

At 18, Woods settled for par after twice backing away from his second shot -- including once in mid-swing -- when quick-fingered fans distracted him with their cellphones.

"Just put it on silent," Woods said afterward.

Truth was, Tiger couldn't have handled what he called "a lot of moving parts out there" any better. He was rock-solid emotionally, and physically, too. That aborted swing on 18 could've been a back breaker for a man whose back was recently introduced to a surgeon's blade, and Woods didn't even flinch.

"I knew I could do it," he told reporters. "I'm telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played -- I'm only going to get better from that point. And I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again."

Woods pulled out his driver once all day; he used it once all tournament in 2006. And yet in the middle of his post-round practice session, Tiger ripped off his familiar Tiger head cover and worked on the big club just in case.

His old coach, Hank Haney, had told The Scotsman's John Huggan that Woods "doesn't care as much as he used to," and cited the lack of tournament play and practice between Congressional and Hoylake as evidence his former client was using this Open as a tuneup for a major he thinks he can actually win: next month's PGA at Valhalla.

Only that Tiger wasn't the Tiger who showed up Thursday. He played the smarter, more patient golf he said he needs to play at this stage of his career, reminded himself after the bad start that four par-5s were still to come, and bought himself time, in his words, "to fight myself back into the championship."

When Woods was done pounding balls on the range, his caddie, Joe LaCava, said his man's first major round of the year was built around his accuracy off the tees.

"It was all pretty solid, no surprises," LaCava said. "But you expect this because Tiger feels it. He expects it. Regardless of the layoff, he expects to play the way he did."

Above all else, Woods expects to win. He said so two days before the start of this tournament, and he repeated it on the course Thursday, when he did his talking with his clubs.

Tiger Woods is not treating the Open Championship as any dry run for more manageable majors down the road. He can win this thing, and his opponents can believe otherwise at their own peril.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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