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.

Woods isn't the outright betting favorite this week at Royal Liverpool. That would be  Rory McIlroy at 12-1, but he's followed by six players, including Woods, at 16-1. Think about that for a moment. He has played two competitive rounds since March 31, and he's still getting lower odds than Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson.

But strange things can happen at an Open Championship. Darren Clarke winning at Sandwich in 2011 can happen. Tom Watson, at age 59, almost winning at Turnberry in 2009 can happen. Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004, and Ben Curtis at Sandwich in 2003 can happen.

"I've gotten stronger since [the surgery]," Woods said. "I've gotten more explosive. I've gotten faster since then. ... I'm only going to get strong and faster, which is great."

That's nice. But if playing at Congressional was a baby step, then playing at Royal Liverpool is a slow jog. It means something but not everything. It means the comeback continues. Or, as Woods likes to say, "a process."

A Woods win this week would nudge ahead of Watson's improbable AARP-ish near victory and lap the rest of the names on that list. It would be memorable, indelible, a full chapter for his memoir -- if he ever writes one.

I'm rooting for it. It would be the best story on a tee sheet full of cool stories. (Mickelson going back-to-back on Claret Jugs?  Justin Rose going for three wins in a row? Martin Kaymer going for back-to-back Opens -- U.S. and British?)

But if it doesn't happen, there's no reason to start hyperventilating again. It doesn't mean Woods is a shadow of a shadow of himself. It doesn't mean he's washed up at 38 or that he's quit caring.

All it really means is that he's still recovering from back surgery. That his body and swing are trying to catch up to his motivation. That it's harder to win today than it was in 2006.

On Tuesday, someone asked Woods what has gotten more of a reaction in the past: the green jackets he has won at the Masters or the Claret Jugs he has won at the Open Championship.

"I think that more people wanted to drink out of the Jug," he said.

Woods would like to do the same come Sunday night. That's his version of an acceptable finish. Chug from the Jug or bust.

It's an admirable goal, but not necessary. Not this week.

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