BETHESDA, Md. – In less time than it takes to round the congested Capital Beltway the vibe around Tiger Woods was transformed from unrealistic expectations, the burden the former world No. 1 has shouldered his entire career, to a markedly lower outlook, a seed this week’s host firmly planted on Tuesday.
“Expectations don't change. That's the ultimate goal [to win],” Woods said on the eve of his return to the PGA Tour after 15 weeks on the DL.
“It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time. I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps that I would like, but I'm good enough to play, and I'm going to give it a go.”
But a week that began with so much promise ended prematurely late Friday for Woods, who struggled to rounds of 74-75 to miss the cut by a mile in his first tournament since back surgery on March 31.
His short week at the Quicken Loans National was just his 10th missed cut in 299 Tour starts as a professional. To put that in context, co-leader Ricky Barnes has missed 13 cuts on various tours ... over the last 12 months.
But this wasn’t about a score as much as it was getting a scorecard in his hand. This was about getting ready for the Open Championship in a fortnight at Royal Liverpool. About supporting an event that benefits his foundation and needed a boost after signing a new sponsor. And most importantly about giving his surgically repaired back a test drive.
Much of the unrealistic expectations heaped on Woods are self-inflicted. In 2008 following arthroscopic surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee he returned from an eight-week hiatus and won the U.S. Open in a 19-hole playoff.
He returned from another knee surgery in 2008 and won in his third start back at the ’09 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
In short, Woods has made a career out of making the impossible probable. But this most recent mountain defied even his greatness.
There was rust from the tee (like his foul balls at the ninth and 11th tees on Day 2). Rust from the fairway (like his pitch from 61 yards that bounded through the green and led to one of five bogeys on Friday). And rust around the greens (pick a hole, nearly any hole will do after he managed to save par after missing a green in regulation just three out of 16 times).
This went well beyond rust, and understandably so.
If you follow Woods’ timeline back to action it’s clear there wasn’t enough legwork to be game-ready this week.
On May 19, Woods said he was putting and chipping but not hitting full shots. On Tuesday he explained that he worked his way through his bag, with his doctor’s blessing, adding “about 10 yards every day to two days depending on how I felt.”
In the 30 or so days since he started hitting full shots that doesn’t leave a lot of room for progression (particularly in a bag that ranges out beyond 300 yards), not to mention the likelihood he has been on a ball count throughout the rehab process.
But Woods’ week in the nation’s capital went well beyond the colorful marks on his scorecard. If he wasn’t impressed with his game, particularly his putting, he could take solace from the fact he covered 36 holes without a tweak or pinch or spasm.
“I came back four weeks earlier than we thought that I could. The one thing that I was worried about the most was going out there and hitting driver full out,” said Woods, who finished 104th in the 120-player field. “The fact that I was able to hit it that hard was very encouraging and not to have any setbacks at all.”
Woods would never count this as a soft opening, but it seems he spent much of the week operating at three-quarter speed, smoothing drives instead of his traditional smashing action and keeping his extracurricular activities to a minimum, including abbreviated warm-up sessions before each of his three rounds, including Wednesday’s pro-am.
What little he was able to glean from his game did not take away from the fact that he enjoyed a pain-free week.
“A lot of positives to take away from these three days,” said Woods, who plans to take a family vacation next week before his next start at the Open Championship. “Even though I missed the cut by four shots, the fact that I was able to even play ...”
Players like Woods don’t get rehab starts. They don’t enjoy the benefit of easing their way back into competition. Expectations, however external, won’t allow it.
Let the microanalysis begin, but after 36 largely scruffy holes it’s best to let Woods himself be the ultimate arbiter of whether this test drive was a success or not.
“I hate to say it, but I’m encouraged by what happened this week,” he said.