US golfer Tiger Woods tees off during the second round of the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 27, 2014US golfer Tiger Woods tees off during the second round of the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)
Washington (AFP) - Tiger Woods enters next week's British Open at Royal Liverpool needing a victory to keep pace with Jack Nicklaus in major wins while his injury-ravaged body tries to turn back the clock.
The 38-year-old American has won 14 major titles, but none since the 2008 US Open as he tries to overtake the all-time record of 18 majors won by Nicklaus, who captured his 15th major at age 38 at the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews.
Woods won the Claret Jug the last time he played at Hoylake in the 2006 British Open, but this year he has managed to finish 72 holes only once without battling severe pain, that in Dubai back in early February.
Woods underwent back surgery on March 31 to ease pressure on a pinched nerve and was idle for 109 days until making a comeback two weeks ago just outside Washington at the US PGA National, firing 74 and 75 to miss the cut at Congressional Country Club.
But such is the woeful state of Woods' game that back-to-back healthy rounds, no matter how far over par, was considered a positive achievement as he faces his first major since the surgery.
"I hate to say it but I'm really encouraged by what happened this week," Woods said two weeks ago in his most recent public comments.
"What I was able to do physically and the speed I had and distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time. And to recover like I did overnight, still leery about it, 'How am I going to recover?' Felt great."
Woods was inconsistent off the tee and on the green and blamed his struggles on minor problems he declared fixable before the British Open.
"I made so many little mistakes -- missing the ball on the wrong sides, not having the right feel for certain shots, not judging the wind correctly and speed on putts -- all the little things that I know I can fix. But as I said, that's very encouraging."
What's discouraging is seeing how far his form has fallen from the icon who launched "Tigermania" with an epic 1997 Masters win, took four majors in a row and seven of 11 from 1999 to 2002, then ran off six major wins in 14 tries from the 2005 Masters to the 2008 US Open.
Since then, he has battled numerous knee and leg injuries, coped with the aftermath of his infamous sex scandal and divorce, changed his swing to ease the load on his knees and faced back pain with the pinched nerve that left him bed-ridden at one stage -- all while a younger generation of rivals he inspired have come of age and started winning majors themselves.
- Time ticks away on Tiger -
Woods has not broken 70 on the weekend at a major since the 2011 Masters and has never won a major when not leading after 54 holes.
And for him to pass Nicklaus, he will have to win five majors beyond his 38th birthday, a feat last accomplished by Ben Hogan in 1953.
Nicklaus won his 15th major in his 67th major start at age 38 while Woods has won 14 titles in 65 major starts entering Hoylake.
"Tiger's swing has changed through the years. He has changed it because of his body," said four-time major winner Ernie Els.
"But he's got the strongest mind out here, so I think with that in mind, I think he's got a real good chance of still breaking Jack Nicklaus' record."
If Woods does not win at Hoylake or in next month's PGA Championship at Valhalla, he will have gone 20 majors without a victory -- matching the longest gap between major wins in Nicklaus' career, his run between the 1980 PGA Championship at his final major crown at the 1986 Masters at age 46.
"He's chasing history," Els said. "He's in a position unlike any other player currently playing the sport that he can change history, so that's really important for him, and for golf, going forward."