At the beginning, Tiger Woods didn’t look fit to play in a pro-am, much less ready for a competitive tournament, not after hitting his first tee shot into a lake and his second into a creek bed. But that could have been a result of the pain — not in his back but the one pounding in his head from watching the high-dollar amateurs hack it around at Congressional Country Club. Health-wise, Woods seemed just fine. It was the customer golf that was excruciating.
You don’t fully appreciate Woods’s expertise until you’ve watched him play a practice round next to three weekenders whose swings look like they’re throwing lariats. I’m going to change the names to protect their dignity and just call the gentlemen who shared a foursome with Woods in the Quicken Loans National Pro-Am on Wednesday by nicknames. “Hey Big Guy,” Tiger said to one, and we’ll just leave it at that. There was a hedge fund type, who we’ll call Blue Shirt, and Blue Shirt’s son, a ginger haired kid who from a very great distance looked a little like Prince Harry. That was the company Woods was in at 6:30 a.m. when he stepped to the 10th tee at Congressional to play his first public round of golf since undergoing a microdiscectomy three-and-a-half months ago to relieve a pinched nerve. Waiting for him were a host of rubbernecking media, who half believed he might wince when he bent over to put that first peg in the ground.
Whap. Woods’s long iron off the tee at the par-3 hit the upslope of a bank above the lake and slid back down. How’s that for acute embarrassment? Right then you knew the issue for Woods isn’t whether he’s ready to contend but whether he can make the cut. No one, himself included, should expect too much this week. He’s here to get some practice in before he goes to the British Open and loosen up that post-surgery body. Which his partners helped him do by unintentionally firing balls in his direction and making him dodge.
Still, it was a hugely promising round, given the nature of his injury and the speed of his comeback. The big question was how Woods and his repaired back would fare in Congressional’s long, sticky rough, and Woods found himself in it all morning, at times looking barely better than his amateur partners off the tee. But he was able to hit some towering recoveries that sucked the breath out of your throat. And it only took him nine holes to regain his accuracy with his driver.
On No. 17, Woods drove it so far in the right rough he had to move a gallery rope and a TV cable. “Not a good spot,” he told the cameraman, waving him away. He still had a pine tree blocking his view of the green. But he accepted a hybrid from his military caddie, Master Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Russell, and hit a glorious cut that soared up the fairway, landed in the narrow neck in front of the green, bounded up and rolled to within a foot and a half of the pin. “Good club,” he told Russell and the gallery, grinning.
Even with the errant drives, Woods seemed lighter in spirit and more patient than he has been on a golf course in some time, no doubt the result of being pain free. And by the way, patience was no small thing with his playing partners spraying balls and hollering “Fore!” They were guys who could actually play the game a little — until they got in trouble and stood in that championship-caliber rough, when they suddenly seemed knock-kneed and geek-elbowed compared to Woods.
Waiting on them was a deep-breathing exercise. Except, you had to stay alert because some of the shots came off their clubs like Stephen Strasburg curveballs, skidding across fairways and bounding through bunkers. On the 12th hole, Prince Harry hit it into the rest rooms. On the 14th, he hit it next to a fence, and on the 15th he yelled, “Heads up!” when he almost beaned Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava. On the 17th, Big Guy found a greenside bunker and advised the gallery, “Hold up, folks, because I don’t know where this is going.”
Throughout the morning Woods remained accommodating and tolerant, with himself as well as the others, and by the second nine he had corrected something in his grip and was hitting it straight. He left his partners to hew and gash their way out of the rough without him, as he hit 5 of 7 fairways and 8 of 9 greens. “I hit some loose shots today, but I also hit some really good ones,” he said. “Back feels good . . . which is a really good sign.”
All in all, it was a major advance. Just playing a full round of golf on a tournament course represented progress for Woods, who hasn’t competed since March 9. Justin Rose missed only five weeks this season with an injured shoulder, and even that told on his game.
“I always feel like there’s a slight lag effect,” Rose said. “You can have your game on the range, but it might take a week or two weeks or having a scorecard in your hand for five or six rounds. . . . Sometimes it takes time to get the scoring head back on, to be able to up-and-down it and keep momentum going around the golf course. There are sort of key points in a round that I think you only get better at that by just playing a little bit of golf and getting tournament sharp.”
That was a pretty good summary of what Woods experienced in the pro-am. He literally got better in the space of a single round, which begged the question of how much more he can improve before the week is out. It also ratified his decision to enter the tournament.
In March, Woods’s back pain ran down his leg and he could barely move. “I wasn’t even functioning,” he said. “Needed help to get out of bed.”
For two months after the surgery he couldn’t do more than putt. He only started hitting his driver two weeks ago — and he was happy to break 50 on his first nine holes.
Woods suggested earlier this week there was a chance he would be terrible at first. “I wanted to knock off a little bit of rust on the range before I actually went out there and tried not to embarrass myself on the golf course,” he said.
There were moments when he flirted with embarrassment. But they were worth it by the turn.