Tiger Woods predicted rust, and there it was Thursday morning at Congressional Country Club, some corrosion in his golf game that would only seem natural after three-and-a-half months out of competition. He opened the Quicken Loans National with a 3-over-par 74 that was a struggle at times, but a round he held together with two late birdies that increase the chances his comeback from back surgery will extend through the weekend.
“The score is not really indiciative of how I played,” Woods said after a warm, breezy morning round. “… I made so many little mistakes.”
Indeed, Woods’s round was filled with errant iron shots and three missed putts inside six feet as he tried to get a feel for the game again. Congressional, though, wasn’t hard only on him. His playing partners also struggled, Jason Day to a 73 and Jordan Spieth to an all-over-the-place 74.
Woods, though, was relieved merely to be competing again for the first time since March 9, when he shot 78 in the final round of the Cadillac Championship at Doral. His back surgery came March 31, and he missed both the Masters and the U.S. Open.
So the return at a tournament that benefits his foundation was welcome, regardless of the score. He was followed all morning by three men wearing orange shirts emblazoned with black letters that said, “He’s Back!” And at nearly every hole, he was greeted by someone yelling, “Welcome back, Tiger!” or, “Thanks for playing!”
“It’s nice to be back out here playing again,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, in my career, I’ve been sidelined enough. So it’s always fun to come back out here and play against these guys, the best in the world. I get out here and see what I can do.”
What he couldn’t do, at least on Thursday, was compete – though he’s not out of the tournament, given the teeth Congressional showed. Greg Chalmers birdied his final three holes to take the lead with a 5-under 66, a shot ahead of Ricky Barnes – excellent play, to be sure, but not enough to run away and hide.
That gives Woods, Day and Spieth some hope that their struggles Thursday won’t cause them to miss the cut come Friday afternoon. Plus, after they all played their first nine in 4 over, they held it together in front of the healthiest galleries Congressional could bring for the first round.
“It was cool to see everyone behind Tiger, welcome him back, wishing him well,” Spieth said. “He said he’s feeling great. He said that it was a little different starting out and he finally found his rhythm. We saw what happens when he found his rhythm there. So look for a pretty solid round tomorrow out of him. Wouldn’t be surprising if he shoots a few under.”
That was not the case early on. With a large gallery lining the 10th hole for his 8:12 a.m. tee time, Woods put his first shot of his return – an iron on the par 3 over water – into a bunker behind the green. The result: bogey. At 11, the slog of a par 4 that was the hardest hole on the PGA Tour a year ago, he three-putted from off the green, and his comeback began with two straight bogeys.
“I think the hard part was just getting into the rhythm of playing competitively,” Woods said. “You play with your buddies all day for cash and stuff, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as tournament golf. Different level.”
Woods didn’t really find his rhythm until well on the back side. At the par-3 seventh, he stuffed a 7-iron to three feet for one birdie, then hit a sand wedge into the par-4 eighth to about the same distance, the birdie that got him back to 3 over.
Woods, Spieth and Day begin their second round at 1:12 p.m. Friday.