By Tony Jimenez
HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - After missing the U.S. Masters and the U.S. Open following a back operation, Tiger Woods returns to major championship action at this week's British Open and once again he is the hot topic of conversation.
The 38-year-old American is normally the clear favorite when he tees it up at any tournament but the bookmakers seem skeptical of his title chances at Hoylake, rating him a 20-1 shot to land the 15th major victory of his career.
Having gone six years since capturing the last of his majors - at the 2008 U.S. Open - the fear factor is still prevalent among his rivals even though it is not quite what it once was.
"It's not fear. It's respect," five-times Open champion Tom Watson told reporters. "You have to respect what his capabilities have been and probably will be again.
"When I was playing it was always, 'Where's Jack Nicklaus on the leaderboard? That's the first name I looked for.
"Then it was, 'Where's Lee Trevino? Where's Johnny Miller?'. In my early career those were the guys but it was mainly Jack," added Watson.
"Throughout my entire career it was Jack first and I guarantee you that the players looking at these new electronic scoreboards are going to be looking for Tiger Woods's name this week."
World number seven Woods goes into the third major of the season having played only two competitive rounds of golf in four months.
Former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange told Reuters in a recent interview that his fellow American had to therefore lower his expectations at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
Asked on Tuesday what an acceptable finish would be here, Woods gave the questioner a steely glare and a response that left no one in any doubt.
"First," said the former world number one. "That's always the case."
Woods added that the two rounds he played at the Quicken Loans National event in Maryland last month gave him a huge psychological lift, even though he missed the cut.
"Playing at Congressional was a big boost," he explained. "The fact I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain.
"I've gotten stronger, I've gotten more explosive and I've gotten faster since then... which is great."
Woods, though, faces an uphill task in challenging for the coveted Claret Jug with so many world-class players at the peak of their powers.
World number one Adam Scott is desperate to make it third time lucky after finishing as runner-up in the Open in 2012 and tied third last year.
Second-ranked Henrik Stenson has not managed to scale the same peaks he did in winning last year's U.S. FedExCup series and the European money-list double but his form is slowly returning and he is almost certain to be a factor at Hoylake.
Masters champion Bubba Watson, U.S. Open winner Martin Kaymer and former world number one Rory McIlroy will also have plenty of support from the fans.
The bookmakers' favorite is Justin Rose who is bidding for a rare hat-trick of tour wins after landing the Quicken Loans title and last week's Scottish Open crown.
The players have been singing the praises of the course set-up all week with twice former winner Padraig Harrington describing it as almost too immaculate.
World number three Rose, bidding to become the first English winner of the trophy since Nick Faldo in 1992, called it "a very fair test".
"The fairways are relatively flat, the greens are relatively flat yet the trouble is there," he said.
"The rough is relatively thick but nothing is extreme so I think it offers something for everybody. The guy who goes out and plays great golf this week is going to win."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)