Tiger vs. Tiger: Is Tiger Woods’ biggest challenge at the Open Championship his own rustiness?

Tiger Woods is trying to hunt down Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major record of 18 wins, and he’s doing it by … not playing much golf.

Heading into Thursday’s 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush, Woods has played just three tournaments since winning the Masters on that epic April afternoon. Two of those were majors, one of which he missed the cut. So that’s 10 competitive rounds in more than three months.

It is a strategy, a calculated move he believes gives him his only realistic chance to successfully extend his career, but also one enforced by the constraints of his own body.

If Tiger is to punch his way through the field in Northern Ireland, he will have had to conquer his own ring rust — as well as deciphering the unique charms of a testing links course.

“This year, I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure that I don’t play too much,” Woods said. “I want to play here as long as I possibly can. And you have to understand, if I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long.

“The tricky part is trying to determine how much tournament play I need to get the feel for the shots and also understanding where my body is.”

Woods, whose Masters triumph was his 15th Major and first in more than a decade, is 43. He has had four back operations and four more on his knees. Last year, enjoying a resurgence in his game, he played too many tournaments in a bid to climb the rankings and avoid needing exemptions for certain events. By the end, it cost him. At the Ryder Cup he was a shell of himself, contributing zero points to the United States’ losing effort against Europe.

Being more circumspect with his time and schedule was a must, but it comes at a price. Former players and fellow competitors this week believe the limited workload — Woods took a two-week vacation to Thailand in the lead-up to this event — has to hinder his chances.

“I personally think if you’re serious about winning the Open, you’ve got to be playing tournament golf at least before it,” two-time champion Padraig Harrington said.

“His schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense,” added Europe’s 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, to Sky Sports. “In fact, to play just one tournament outside the Majors makes no sense at all to me. We don’t know where he is with his fitness, we don’t know where he is with his health. We just don’t know a lot about anything to do with him at the moment.”

Perhaps that is how Woods likes it. But be sure of this — if his name appears on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon and he is breathing down the neck of the chief contenders, they won’t take much solace in the fact that he’s played a light schedule.

However, it would be tough enough to compete with this field even at Woods’ peak. Rory McIlroy is from Northern Ireland as the Open returns here after a 68-year gap, and he holds the course record of 61 – set when he was just 16 [Ed. note: … and then McIlroy’s first round at the Open happened…]. Brooks Koepka has won three of the last six majors and nearly claimed two others, plus his caddie Ricky Elliott grew up in Portrush and has played the course countless times. And the top guys? They’re all playing a lot of golf.

Woods knows all this. If he had his own way he’d have played more, too. He admits his game is “not quite where I’d like it to be.”

Fortunately for him, there is some historical precedent that seems to bend in his favor. Nicklaus won two Majors at age 40 in 1980, while playing a tournament schedule of just 13 events that year.

When the Golden Bear won arguably his greatest and certainly his most sentimental title at the 1986 Masters, he got through a 15-tournament schedule. Lee Trevino played 16 events when winning the PGA Championship in his mid-40s. Woods has gone ultra-light, but he’s played nine times so far in 2019, plus his pay-per-view matchup with Phil Mickelson and the Hero World Challenge towards the end of last year.

Other oldies to have won majors did so during periods when their body was holding up just fine. Ernie Els played a full and grueling schedule while winning the 2012 Open Championship. So too did Phil Mickelson when prevailing in the same event the following year. Such delicacy of touch and clarity of mind is needed to think your way around links golf, that some recent muscle memory is ideal.

“This schedule is a little bit different,” Woods said. “I’m trying to figure it out and trying to play enough golf to where that I can compete and win events.”

The sweet spot for Woods, in recent times, seems to be where he can play every couple of weeks, giving him time to recuperate after each event but still stay on top of his game and keep the competitive juices flowing. That’s what he did building up to the Masters, and previously in winning the Tour Championship to close out last season.

It’s not an option, not this time around. Maybe he can outsmart all those younger guys. Maybe the links will be a leveler; you have to craft your way around here — bombing it miles is of little help. Maybe the rust will rule out any serious chance he might have had. But are you sure?

“It’s Tiger Woods,” said local hero and 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke. “Anything can happen.”