Woods hopes practice makes perfect form return

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Tiger Woods took Europe's Ryder Cup captain at his word as he ventured out for his first practice round here yesterday. On Saturday, Ian Woosnam had declared that "Tiger could have this course for breakfast," and the world No 1 was up and at it so early that he was obviously trying to do just that.

At 6.45am, Woods teed off on the first hole, catching spectators and officials unaware. But by the time he putted out on the 18th green, fans were all around him; indeed, they almost outnumbered the security guards. But not quite.

The men in black whisked Woods off to his secluded hotel on the Wirral with undue haste, not giving him the chance to say what he thought of Royal Liverpool. But the fact that he had nipped around the second longest lay-out on the Championship rota in under four hours signified that he still has plenty of homework to do on a course that has not hosted an Open in 39 years.

A few weeks ago Woods confessed he had never even seen a picture of Hoylake. Well, yesterday he did nothing more than get used to the colours. He will doubtless start filling in the detail in the next three days before Thursday's first round and at least he has already extended the old club the courtesy of changing his well-established routine.

For years Woods has taken the week off before the Open to go fishing in Ireland. This time he forsook the vacation to jet over on Saturday, landing at midday and highlighting his intent to displace Phil Mickelson as "the best player in the world at the moment" by hotfooting it to Hoylake to play a few holes at 3pm.

It was committed stuff and came at the end of the week when he has worked his balatas off on the range at home in Orlando in an effort to remove the rust that had inevitably built up in his 10-week absence to mourn the death of his father, Earl. At the US Open last month he was in obvious need of the blow-out as he missed his first cut in a major as a professional and when he fired over par in the first round of the Western Open in Illinois a fortnight ago, it seemed as if the 30-year-old was in full "slump" mode.

"The vultures were out to crucify him after that," said his coach, Hank Haney, yesterday. "What they didn't realise was that he had only played two rounds since 12 April. It was very pleasing that he could get into contention after all that."

In fact, Woods almost won the prestigious PGA Tour event, signalling that his powers had waned only because of inaction and this extra practice round here yesterday may have had as much to with that as to acclimatise to Hoylake.

Indeed, he did not appear too greatly troubled by this 7,258-yarder as he hit every fairway on the back nine until the par-five 18th where he pulled one into a bunker and pushed one close to the internal out-of-bounds. Woods, perhaps guarding against spraining a wrist, decided against playing from the rough, that other players described as "not that severe", and chucked a ball on to the fairway.

His playing partner, the Australian Rodney Pampling, revealed afterwards that his friend "had bags of fun out there" and that "he likes this course, thinks it's very fair". These words were echoed by Mickelson, who has already played four rounds since arriving here last Wednesday.

As is his way nowadays, the world No 2 is leaving no stone unturned, no bunker untested as he attempts to win his third major out of four, although in Woosnam's opinion such meticulous preparation may be overdoing it at Royal Liverpool.

The Welshman, who is absent from only his second Open in 25 years, does not sound too impressed with the place. "It needs a bit of wind because without it it'll be pretty easy and Tiger could have it for breakfast," he said. "I played there a month ago and the fairways might be small but without wind they're not that difficult to hit and as the ball bounces so far, there could be a very low score shot. Hoylake will be praying it will be blustery."

Alas, the winds have yet to arrive. But at least that other force of nature known as Tiger has.

* Australian John Senden held his nerve to win his maiden PGA Tour title at the John Deere Classic last night and a spot in this week's Open. One shot behind was compatriot JPHayes while England's Justin Rose faltered with a 73 to finish 12 off the pace.

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