Confident Tiger eyes fourth Open

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Tiger's back!

At the Open Championship.

Sorry, had to do it. But that's what's on everyone's mind, isn't it? Is Tiger Woods back -- really back? The question has been repeated more often than that Seinfeld episode where Teri Hatcher says, "They're real. And they're spectacular."

Woods used to be spectacular. And he could be on the verge of becoming spectacular again, especially if he leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes with his fourth Claret Jug and his 15th major. Then -- finally -- we can cremate this silly debate about the micro-analyzed state of Woods' game.

Actually, Bubba Watson put it perfectly.

"He's won three times this year," said Watson. "I mean, has anybody else won three times this year? So I think he's doing pretty good. I've only won once. It just happened to be a major, so everybody thinks that's a big deal."

Winning a Masters -- and winning it the way Watson did, in a playoff -- is a big deal. But so is winning three tournaments in a seven-event span, which is what Woods has done this season.

Back? He's been back for months.

But there's mere-mortal back, and then there's Tiger-back. Woods' career is judged by majors won. That's how high the standard has been set. And it's been set by Woods himself.

It is a ridiculous measurement, mostly because it's ridiculously hard to win a single major, much less 14 of them. Only 19 players in the history of the game have won more than three. Only three players (Jack Nicklaus, 18; Woods, 14; and Walter Hagen, 11) have won 10 or more.

That's why you have to be careful about judging Woods these days. On one level, it's laugh-out-loud stupid to question the condition of his game. Think about it.

He's won those three tour events this season. He's the leading money winner on tour, even though he's played three less events than second-place Jason Dufner. He ranks first in scoring average on tour. And by the way, he's the no-brainer choice for Player of the Year so far.

If Woods wins -- and he's the favorite at the local wagering sites -- he could move to No. 1 in the world ranking. Compare that to last November, when he was ranked 58th.

So enough already with, "Is he back?" By any logical, reasonable formula, Woods shouldn't have to answer that question anymore. The 2012 version of Tiger doesn't have to apologize for a thing.

In fact, when asked earlier this week if he was "surprised" by the turnaround from late last year to mid-this year, Woods was, uh, economical in his response.

"No," he said. "Help you out?"

Not really. But what did anyone expect him to say? "Yes, I'm stunned. I never thought I'd break 80 again. I was just hoping to win the D Flight at my Member/Guest."

Woods can win here this week. Or more to the point, he can win any week. I'm not sure he would have thought that a year ago.

The Tiger I've seen during a Sunday practice round and during his media sessions seems not only comfortable and prepared, but confident -- as if he truly likes his chances. You don't want to read too much into it, but he doesn't sound like a guy questioning himself or his swing.

Yes, I know: he was tied for the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open and finished T-21, finished T-40 at the Masters and missed the cut a few weeks ago at The Greenbrier. Those weren't his finest golf moments.

This week he's in total majors mode. His rental house has a gym. He doesn't leave the place for a meal. He works out, eats and sleeps. And when he isn't doing that, he's at Royal Lytham & St. Annes playing practice rounds or doing multiple sessions on the driving range.

"Well, I'm looking forward to it," said Woods of this Open Championship.

He isn't the only one. World No. 3 Lee Westwood, who has the driest sense of humor this side of the Bonneville Salt Flats, is still trying to win his first major. The last Englishman to win a major was Sir Nick Faldo in 1996.

Given the choice between winning one of the four biggies or a Ryder Cup, Westwood doesn't even bother being diplomatic.

"Prefer to win a major because I'm selfish," he said. "I'd like to win the Ryder Cup as well. But no, I haven't won a major yet and I'd like to win one."

And then, lowering his voice, "Or two. Or three."

The same goes for No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy, who is looking for his second major. He won the U.S. Open in 2011, went to the Open Championship a month later at Royal St. George's and shot 74-73 on the weekend for a T-25.

He's missed four cuts this year, including the U.S. Open at Olympic, but now calls it "a little blip in the radar."

It must have been a very big radar screen. Still, you give McIlroy the benefit of the doubt, especially on this side of the pond. He swears he's going to "embrace" the Open Championship, even if that means the crummy weather that usually comes with it.

And then there is world No. 1 Luke Donald. Just repeat the stuff about Westwood: has never won a major and is trying to break the Englishman majors winless streak thing.

"So far, so good," said Donald, who has a history of getting too geeked for the majors. "I'm feeling pretty relaxed. I'm feeling comfortable."

Then again, it's Wednesday going into Thursday. Wait until it's raining sideways. Or the wind has a temper tantrum. Or your ball lands in one of the 205 bunkers on this course.

That's what this Open Championship is about. The weather. Those record-breaking bunkers. Thick, hateful rough that could eat a terrier whole.

And, of course, it's about Tiger Woods. It's always about Woods.

He has said -- oh, about a jillion times -- that the remaking of his swing is "a process." So if a process has a beginning, a middle and an end, where is he?

"Somewhere in it," he said. "Did that help you out?"

Not really. But a win here sure would. I'd never again have to type the words, "Is Tiger back?"