By Tony Jimenez
LONDON (Reuters) - Former world number one Tiger Woods is kidding himself if he turns up at this month's British Open with only a repeat of his 2006 Hoylake win on his mind, according to former U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Curtis Strange.
The 14-times major champion is desperately short of competitive golf, having returned from a back operation last week at the Quicken Loans National event in Maryland and missing the cut in his first appearance for three months.
"We learned a long time ago never to say never about Tiger because he's such an incredibly talented player but you have to look at a couple of things," Strange told Reuters in a telephone interview from Gleneagles, venue of the Ryder Cup in September.
"Even before his surgery, and his form was obviously hampered by his physical condition, he wasn't playing well so when you have an operation and you've been out for three months, you're not going to be a better player after doing that.
"He didn't play well last week, and of course last week was all about testing his back, but he still didn't play well," said Strange who captained Woods in the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry.
"If he goes to Hoylake saying, 'I'm here to win and that's the only thing', that would be him telling a lie to himself."
World number five Woods is not planning to play again before he returns to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club and Strange said he found that surprising.
"He's not 100 percent golf-fit yet," said the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Open champion. "It's good to see him back and healthy but I wonder what kind of condition he's going to be in at the Open because he's not playing again until then.
"If that was me I would want to play at least one more tournament before the Open to get my game in better shape, to get more strength in my golf muscles," added Strange, a representative of Standard Life Investments, worldwide partner of the Ryder Cup.
"I don't care how much practice you do, it's not the same thing as playing in competition.
"Tiger is a guy who sticks to his schedule and he probably didn't want to overdo it with his back but I guess I'm surprised a little bit."
The 59-year-old Strange feels that 2000, 2005 and 2006 Open champion Woods needs to limit his ambitions when the third major of the year starts on July 17.
"I think he should go to Hoylake wanting to hit some good shots, wanting to get some confidence, some momentum with his swing, to get a feel for his short game," the American said.
"He could win it of course but it's not something you could bet your house on, I don't think."
Woods' long-time rival Phil Mickelson also goes into the Open under a cloud, having failed to reproduce his best golf this season.
The five-times major champion put together a spectacular final round at Muirfield to lift the prized Claret Jug 12 months ago and Strange believes the erratic American left-hander is the sort of player who could turn his form around in an instant.
"It's been a bit of a funny season for Phil," he explained. "We always expect him to play well but this is a tough game, there are a lot of moving parts and sometimes you don't play as well as you would like.
"Phil is so unpredictable sometimes and he can often come out of a slump very quickly because he has so much talent. I expect that from him any time," said Strange.
"A lot of us didn't expect him to ever win the British Open but he did it in such fantastic fashion in the last round last year."
(Editing by Josh Reich)