July 13, 2006

Woods primed to defend his British Open title

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tiger Woods is the player to beat
in next week's British Open at Hoylake, despite having played
only two tournaments over the last three months.

The world number one hinted he is close to his best form by
tying for second at last week's Western Open and he returns to
the challenge of links course golf as reigning Open champion.

Last year at St Andrews, Woods delivered a masterful
display on the famed Old Course, romping to a five-stroke
victory and the 10th major title of his career.

He hardly put a foot wrong in the final round, firing a
two-under-par 70 in breezy conditions to become only the second
player, after Jack Nicklaus, to win each of the grand slam
events at least twice.

Although clearly ring-rusty in last month's U.S. Open at
Winged Foot where he missed his first cut as a professional in
a major, he was back to his fist-pumping best last week at Cog
Hill Golf in Lemont, Illinois.

"It was nice to feel the juices coming down the stretch
where I had a chance," Woods told reporters after mounting a
last-day charge with four birdies after the turn.

"It was good. I felt that rush. That's part of being an
athlete, to feel that rush coming down the stretch.

"It's tough to have the nerves and control them and the
adrenaline. It's a blast. It's actually a blast."


Asked whether he felt his game was primed for the British
Open, Woods replied with a quizzical smile: "It's never where
you want it to be. If it is, quit."

His words will certainly send a shiver or two down the
spines of his rivals at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake,
north-west England.

The best player since Nicklaus has his game face on and is
hungry for his third PGA Tour title of the year.

Woods was not quite ready for the heat of major battle at
the U.S. Open, his first tournament since the Masters in April,
after taking a nine-week break to deal with the illness and
death of his father Earl.

One month on, though, he is certainly ready for next week's
British Open, whatever he says about his game not being quite
where he wants it to be.

Another player keen to start a fresh major chapter is
Masters champion Phil Mickelson, still bruised after his
final-hole meltdown at the U.S. Open.

The meticulous left-hander had been chasing a third
consecutive major title at Winged Foot but squandered a
two-shot lead with three holes to play in the closing round.


Erratic off the tee for most of the day, he hit another
wild drive at the 18th on his way to a double-bogey six that
dropped him one stroke behind winner Geoff Ogilvy of Australia.

"I'm not ever going to forget it, that's obvious,"
Mickelson said at last week's Western Open where he tied for

"But what I'm not going to do is let it affect negatively
my performance in upcoming majors. I've got two more this year.

"I'm playing too well, and I've got a system of preparation
that has been helping me play some of my best golf. Right now,
I'm excited about the chances at Hoylake."

Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship at Baltusrol last
August, made his first trip to Hoylake before the Western Open.
He has returned there this week to become fully acquainted with
the nuances of the course.

Careful preparation is a valuable asset in arguably the
most open' of the four majors, and particularly this year.

The par-72 layout, hosting the Open for the first time
since Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo triumphed there in 1967,
is one of the flattest and most exposed venues on the
championship rota.

As always at a seaside links, the vagaries of the weather
will play an important part in determining the winner, as well
as a bit of good fortune when it comes to the bounce of the
ball on the humps and bumps of the fairways.

The 135th British Open takes place from July 20-23.