Take your time with Tiger Woods

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HOYLAKE, England -- The Tiger Woods-related questions are as breathless as someone who just ran 20 miles wearing steel-toed work boots:

CAN HE POSSIBLY WIN THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP THIS WEEK?! WILL HIS SURGICALLY REPAIRED BACK HOLD UP?! IF HE DOES WIN, WILL A CERTAIN FORMER SWING COACH FINALLY QUIT WITH THE TIGER-DOESN'T-CARE NONSENSE?!

Before everyone hyperventilates into a dizzy mess, maybe it's important to remember the question that really matters already has been answered:

Will Woods play golf again?

A surgeon's incision was made in Woods' lower back less than four months ago. If he didn't care -- as Hank Haney, four years removed as his coach, has suggested -- then Woods wouldn't have power-grinded through his rehab, wouldn't have played at Congressional three weeks ago and wouldn't have had this back-and-forth during Tuesday's news conference at Royal Liverpool Golf Club:

Question: "Given your limited preparation coming in here, what would be an acceptable finish for you this weekend?"

Woods: "First."

Question: "Anything less than that would be unacceptable?"

Woods: "That's always the case, yeah."

This is Woods' first major in nearly a year. He played in August's PGA Championship but was a postsurgery no-show for April's Masters and last month's U.S. Open. To think he's going to pop into Hoylake and leave here with his fourth Claret Jug is somewhere between wishful thinking and Lindsay Lohan doing Shakespeare in the park.

It could happen. In fact, it has happened, as Woods likes to remind people.

"I think that I've been in circumstances like this before," he said.

Yes, 2008. He had knee surgery after the Masters that year, stunk it up at times during his comeback (said he didn't break 50 during a practice nine), then won the U.S. Open on one leg. We remember. How can we forget? It was the last time Woods won a major championship.

"I've proven I can do it," he said.

He has. He has won with a broken leg, has won only months after the death of his father (in 2006, here at Hoylake), has won when his personal life was in crisis (see his record in 2009). If anything, Woods has cared too much about golf.

That's why this week and this major are less of a crossroads and more of a starting point. It doesn't matter whether he wins this week. Chances are he won't. Right now, the only thing that matters is that he's here.

"We all benefit from him being in the tournament," Phil Mickelson said. "We are just glad he's back. He's back a lot earlier than I think a lot of us thought. That's only beneficial, and hopefully he'll play well."

Said Adam Scott, who occupies the same No. 1 world ranking that Woods owned for so many weeks, months and years: "He generates so much interest. So I'm happy to see that. ... So he'll be wanting to take his spot back at the top."

Golf was fine without Woods. It will be fine after he calls it quits 10 to 15 years from now. But golf is always more compelling with him in a major than out of it.

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