BETHESDA, Md. – Tiger Woods walked onto Congressional’s 10th tee at 8:10 Thursday morning, decked in a spiffy green shirt and black pants, and the applause was exactly what you’d expect for golf’s alpha male, who was making his first start since being sidelined for nearly four months.
It was loud and it was appreciative.
Two minutes later came the introduction: “Now, on the tee, please welcome, Mr. Tiger Woods.”
At that split second, the following five hours were rendered inconsequential. It mattered only that Woods was back. He was one of the guys again.
Woods said earlier in the week that his expectations are the same as always – meaning he’d love to win the Quicken Loans National – although he knew it would be much more difficult than usual because of his recent back surgery. He also admitted he wouldn’t be playing this event if it didn’t benefit his foundation.
That’s all you need to know about what Woods truly expected.
The final tally on this steamy day outside the nation’s capital was 3-over 74. Woods collected seven bogeys and a birdie on the first 12 holes, but showed his trademark fighting spirit over the final six holes by grinding out three birdies. He hit 10 of 18 greens, nine of 14 fairways and took a few sloppy swats with the flat stick on the way to 31 putts.
Most notably, though, the score recorded for number of times Woods winced from back pain was zero. Zip. Zilch.
“The back’s great,” Woods said. “I had no issues at all… It felt fantastic. That’s one of the reasons why I let go on those tee shots. I hit it pretty hard out there.”
Extremely hard, actually. He had no other option. Congressional is a brutish layout that played nearly as difficult as it did three years ago for the U.S. Open with gnarly rough and quick, firm greens. Not exactly an ideal mixture for a man looking to find form.
“There’s a difference between practice and social play and tournament play,” said Jason Day, Woods’ playing partner. “It’s just not the same. There’s no amount of practice and social play that you can do to get ready for tournaments.”
There was good and there was bad. But the bad wasn’t terrible.
Woods hit his driver nine times, which is almost the equivalent of the number of times he hit the same club Tuesday on the practice range (11). He went after it with force most times out of the rough, especially on Nos. 15 and 18. He took a massive blow with an iron out of the fairway bunker on his final hole, the par-5 ninth, because he needed enough distance on the shot to hit wedge into the green for the third.
He appeared uninhibited.
The most curious part of the round was Woods’ short game. He was 50 feet from the hole on No. 11 and left the birdie attempt 18 feet short. Eighteen feet. He missed a couple other shortish par putts that you’d expect him to make.
Chipping was a bit of a mystery, too. Woods left a simple chip 12 feet short on No. 15 and hit a couple other uncharacteristic wedge shots that essentially equate to nothing more than competitive rust.
“That’s all I’ve been doing is chipping and putting,” Woods said. “I hit some bad shots. Those are bad pitches and those are the ones I should get up and down every time.
“I made so many little mistakes. So I played a lot better than the score indicated, which is good.”
Said Day: “You can tell that he’s hitting some good solid drives, some solid iron shots. It’s just the short game is a little rusty. It was soft bogeys out there for him. Once he sharpens it up a little bit, tighten a few things, he’ll start to play better.”
The best part of the round was the closing stretch. A 200-yard approach into the third hole (his 12th of the day) was blistered to 4 feet. The tee shot on the par-3 16th landed 4 feet from the hole and a wedge from 96 yards on 17 landed beyond the hole and spun back to 3 feet. Woods made birdie all three times to salvage a respectable score.
Afterward, Woods didn’t go to the practice range, saying instead he was heading home to get rest and treatment on his back. He’ll have 24 hours before his Friday afternoon tee time for Round 2.
Trailing leader Greg Chalmers by eight shots, Woods will likely need a round several strokes under par to make the cut.
Sure, a spot in the weekend would be nice – for TV ratings, for galleries, for those looking to report an easy story – but this week was always going to be more about the British Open and the PGA Championship than it was the Quicken Loans National.
“He just has to come out and get the competitive juices flowing,” Day said. “Whether he kicks it on and starts to play well this week, I’m pretty sure he’s just trying to get ready for the Open in three weeks.”
Whatever happens this week – good or bad – it was never going to be a surprise. Woods is back; that’s all that matters.