ST. ANDREWS, July 14 – Tiger Woods will try to prove that his lurid sex scandal has not shattered his championship form when the British Open begins on Thursday over the fabled Old Course where golf began.World number one Woods won the past two St. Andrews majors in 2000 and 2005 and an unprecedented third win at this historic links layout would be his first crown since admitting cheating on wife Elin with multiple mistresses.
"The two years that I’ve played well here, I’ve lag putted beautifully and I’ve also hit the ball in the right spots," Woods said. "I understand how to play this course. It’s a matter of putting it together at the right time."
Woods has never gone so deep into a season without a victory, but has played well at majors, sharing fourth at the Masters in returning from a five-month layoff and placing the same at last month’s US Open.
"This course sets up well for him," Masters winner Phil Mickelson said. "He will be in contention on Sunday. I don’t know how anybody can question that.
"He’s going to play well here because he has a lot of heart, an incredible short game and he hits the ball a long way. He has gutted out two fourth-places in majors when he probably didn’t have his best stuff."
Three-time major winner Ernie Els expects betting-favourite Woods to be a factor as well, but warns that the days of domination Woods enjoyed with an eight-stroke triumph in 2000 are likely over.
"Now things have changed a little bit," Els said. "The game has moved on a little bit. A lot of players have moved on. On his day he’s still the best player in the world but I think there are guys a little closer to him now."
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, admires the angles and wind that have kept the Old Course a challenging test as golf and golfers evolved over centuries.
"Get a calm day, you feel like you can shoot 65 every round. Get a windy day, the leader might be 80," Woods said.
"That’s the brilliancy of how this course was designed, that it’s still able to withstand the test of time. Players have gotten longer, equipment has changed, but this course is still relevant and it can still be very difficult."
Proper shot placement and solid putting are key factors over some of the most revered holes in the history of the game, sacred land where legends have shined.
"It would be very special to win at St. Andrews," Mickelson said. "Nicklaus has said a career just doesn’t feel complete unless you’ve won at St. Andrews. I think all the players feel the same way.
"You can’t help but feel this sense of spirituality come over you as you play this course, knowing this is where the game began."
Mickelson would claim his first British Open and pass Woods to become world number one if he can hoist the Claret Jug aloft on Sunday.
"It would be something," Mickelson said. "I know my window of opportunity is small because Tiger is going to start playing some of his better golf here soon, so I’ve got to get my butt in gear."
Mickelson is also confident that Woods eventually will pass Nicklaus for the all-time major win lead.
"It’s certainly in his favour. He only has a few to go," Mickelson said. "You just never know when his game turns."
Els likes the chances of a European winner because the Old Course hosts a European Tour event, the Dunhill Links, every season.
"Because of the European Tour playing here every year, you’re going to have a huge European presence here this week. Guys know the course like the back of their hands now," Els said.
"You’re going to have a big group of guys on Sunday with a chance. You’re going to have to be in control of your emotions and hit the right shots at the right time.
"Somebody will win it, but I think somebody might lose it also."
The biggest change in the Old Course was pushing back the tee 40 yards on the legendary 17th hole, the famed Road Hole that now brings deep left rough and its’ namesake street into play moreso than recent years.
"They’ve taken a hard hole and made it really, really hard," said US Open champion Graeme McDowell. "I would imagine 17 is going to play a pretty big part in this tournament. There’s going to be a lot of drama there.
"If anyone is selling four 4s there right now, I’ll buy it. I’ll even take two 5s and two 4s to be honest with you. It’s a tough hole."
Even Tom Watson, last year’s British Open runner-up at Turnberry, has a chance at age 60.
"Tom Watson could compete around here," McDowell said. "St. Andrews is about dodging the bunkers off the tee and just pace putting really well. That could bring anyone into the equation."