BETHESDA, Md. – It’s been three years and what feels like a lifetime since Tiger Woods roamed the grounds of Congressional Country Club in a competitive manner.
Back then he was dominant and dour and the Blue Course was a spongy shell of what it would become. Way back then Woods opened with a 27-putt 64 on his way to a 13-under-par total and a victory.
The only thing similar between Woods’ opening-round 72 on Thursday just outside the Beltway and that ’09 masterpiece was the nagging thought that both cards were the worst he could have possibly signed for.
Changing times, I guess.
In 2010 the AT&T National moved north to Philadelphia for a two-year hiatus and Woods missed last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional with injury, so if he sounded a tad shell-shocked when he paused for a media Q&A after his round it seemed understandable.
“A little retribution for last year,” he smiled, referring to last year’s record scoring during the Open. “And I wasn’t even there last year.”
The golf course the U.S. Golf Association wanted last June arrived a year too late for this week’s AT&T National, complete with hard and fast fairways, bouncy greens and unforgiving rough.
Just 22 players managed under-par rounds on a hot and humid day and there were four rounds in the 80s, the same amount as on Day 1 at last year’s U.S. Open.
Of course, Congressional’s Black & Blue layout is not the only thing that has changed since Woods rolled to victory here in the summer of 2009. The new version of Woods, although much improved since returning from the DL, no longer turns over-par rounds into tournament savers.
The scrambling efforts that once bridged the gap between jaw-dropping performances continue to be elusive. Blue-collar cards that once gave Woods and his faithful hope are few and far between. Instead, when his swing goes sideways his score normally follows, like it did on Saturday at the U.S. Open when he struggled to a 75 to virtually end his title chances.
Thursday’s effort at Congressional could have been much worse, and given the day’s scoring average his 72 was probably closer to par than it looked. He connected on just 7 of 14 fairways and hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation. Missing, however, is that magical short game that once defied the percentages.
In practical terms on Thursday that added up to 28 putts and an 0-for-2 effort from Congressional’s greenside bunkers. He said it was an issue with the bounce on his 60-degree wedge, but it felt more like a bounce-back thing.
“Today was actually pretty good,” said Woods, who is tied for 30th. “The only thing, I just had a couple bad bunker shots. But otherwise it was actually pretty good. I had to get up and down quite a bit today.”
It is worth noting that when Woods was done talking with the media on Thursday he bolted to the chipping green to work with swing coach Sean Foley.
Given Congressional’s juiced-up condition, a “pretty good” short game won’t cut it this week. The Blue’s rough – which is thicker and, Woods pointed out, not graduated like it was at last year’s Open – is where title dreams go to die.
“Pretty good” may work in Hartford and Dallas, but not Washington, D.C.’s Faux Open – a reality that likely drove Woods into the afternoon haze to clip the short grass one chip shot at a time.
The marquee may read “AT&T National,” but this week’s stop is every bit the Open venue as The Olympic Club.
“We've played three U.S. Opens so far this year. We had Bay Hill, obviously Olympic and now one here,” Woods said. “A couple shots today, ball is bouncing as high as flags. It's an adjustment we have to make.”
Thursday’s 72 wasn’t about a wayward swing so much as it was a wanting short game and, at least from 30,000 feet, it has appeared that way for some time. As much as his critics cut apart Woods’ new action, it’s the 12-foot birdie putts that he leaves 6 inches short, like he did at No. 13 in Round 1, that now define the middle ground between good rounds and something that is memorable.
Unlike Congressional, which was manhandled into something mean by architect Rees Jones and the USGA in the years leading up to last year’s Open, the difference between the 2009 Tiger who won the AT&T and today’s version is subtle. It’s a distance measured by inches, like it was on the 13th hole, and, ultimately, the ground Woods still must cover to regain that greatness.