Tiger Woods isn't finished

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HOYLAKE, England -- If you came to bury golf's Julius Caesar, not to praise him, Tiger Woods made it easy at Royal Liverpool, where a promising first round careened out of bounds and into a final score that was a mile south of the one posted by Tom Watson, age 64.

Woods was done shooting his 75 and 6-over total at the Open Championship so early that Rory McIlroy was still more than an hour and a half away from teeing off. Tiger passed Rory on the putting green on his way off the course and ultimately ended up sitting with girlfriend Lindsey Vonn in the black Mercedes waiting for them in the clubhouse parking lot.

The car had a "VIP Service" sticker in the rear window and was backed into the spot reserved for the golf club's chairman. It was the last sign of the day that Woods still mattered.

"Just way too many mistakes," he said after finishing 69th.

Last year at Muirfield it was mental. Woods was letting a major championship drought dating back to the summer of 2008 get to him, even if he would never admit it for public consumption.

This year at Hoylake was less mental, more physical. The man had serious back surgery March 31. It's fairly remarkable that he even played in this Open.

Woods thought he could win after shooting a 69 on Thursday that could have been a 66. His caddie, Joe LaCava, thought he could win. I thought he could win. Woods had muscle memory (he dominated at Hoylake in 2006), the wacky nature of the Open Championship and enough stability in his back to practice post-round on his side.

Then he started going sideways with his driver and missing too many fairways and greens with everything else in his bag. Three consecutive rounds over par left him at 6-over for the tournament, five strokes behind Watson, the Ryder Cup captain who might not even pick Woods for the team.

But in the end, Tiger Woods is going to be just fine. He will win again. He will win majors again too.

Maybe it didn't feel that way Sunday, when the would-be heir to his throne, McIlroy, was threatening to smash the field like a guitar, and when Woods actually fell behind the major championship pace set by Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 titles have been Tiger's target since childhood.

Woods had been ahead of Nicklaus' pace forever, but Jack claimed No. 15 at St. Andrews in 1978 at the age of 38 years, 6 months. Woods (38 years, 7 months) has been stuck on 14 since he took the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg.

But Woods did win five times on tour last year, and only the worst break of 2013 -- a perfect shot hitting the flagstick at Augusta National and causing a big, fat mess -- might have separated him from a fifth green jacket.

He needs time to recover now, time to find his long-lost feel from tee to green. Woods will get in four rounds of reps in a couple of weeks at Firestone in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he shot 61 last year to win there for the eighth time. Maybe then he will be ready to contend in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he beat Bob May in a playoff 14 years ago. Maybe not.

Either way, Woods won't likely show up as that putt-stalking, finger-pointing terminator who willed the ball into the hole at Valhalla way back when. His red shirt doesn't radiate like it did in 2000.

That doesn't mean he's done as a competitive force in the big ones. He is 0-for-19 since outlasting Rocco Mediate over 19 playoff holes at Torrey Pines, and Sunday marked the eighth time in Woods' past 13 majors that he failed to finish inside the top 20 (or missed the cut); he'd managed that only 10 times in his first 52 majors as a pro.

Some see the trend as hard evidence that Tiger has been tamed for keeps. But as one of the greatest athletes of his time, or any time, Woods makes it easier to believe he will find a way to seriously challenge or break Nicklaus' record before he's done.

Three men in their 40s -- Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson -- won the three Open Championships before this one, and Watson was a single par from the fairway away from winning his sixth in 2009 at age 59.

Golf allows its stars to age gracefully. Golf doesn't let Willie Mays stumble in the outfield grass.

So Tiger has some time to play with, even coming off back surgery (and all those leg injuries before it) at 38 and counting.

"I'm still building," he said. "I'm still working on my game. And I'm still getting stronger and faster."

Woods reminded reporters that he surprised his doctors by returning so soon, by competing at Royal Liverpool after a mere two competitive rounds at Congressional. He also showed his unbending belief in himself by declaring that he belonged on Watson's Ryder Cup team and by deflecting a comparison of McIlroy to a young Tiger by maintaining that a young Rory reminds him more of Mickelson.

"When he gets it going, he gets it going," Woods said. "When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad."

This was Tiger's way of saying, "Hey, let's not get carried away here."

Before he left Royal Liverpool, Woods removed his cap and waved it to the same crowd that pulled for him when he won in his father's memory in 2006. In the parking lot, LaCava loaded Tiger's bag into the trunk of the Mercedes and blurted out an expletive -- through a smile -- when asked whether, given the circumstances, he was content with his boss' effort.

"No, never content," LaCava said. "I wanted to win. You have the wrong guy if you think we were going to settle for that."

Woods won't settle for modest progress in what amounts to rehab assignments. Remember, he's one of the two best players ever for a reason.

As long as his body cooperates even a little bit, the smart bet says Tiger Woods just needs to get a liberating No. 15 behind him to kick the Nicklaus chase back into high gear.

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