What can be ascertained from a 35-minute session on the driving range is debatable, open to interpretation. But that is what Tiger Woods offered Tuesday afternoon at Congressional Country Club: several wedges, working through the irons, a dozen drivers, long and straight. To that point, his comeback from back surgery on the last day of March had been conducted in private. On Tuesday, his return to competition took its first public steps.
“This has been quite a tedious little process,” Woods said.
The tedium will end at 8:12 a.m. Thursday, when he takes to Congressional’s Blue Course alongside 20-year-old star-in-waiting Jordan Spieth and Australian Jason Day in the first round of the Quicken Loans National, Woods’s first taste of competition since March 9. He missed the Masters. He missed the U.S. Open. And he knows this process, tedious as it may be, is inexorably tied to something about which he cares quite a bit: his legacy.
“I take a step back every now and then, especially during this period when I’ve been out,” Woods said during an interview Tuesday in Congressional’s lavish clubhouse. “I’ve been out a few times in my career, and you look back on it. What I’ve accomplished at different ages, no one’s ever done. That’s something I’m very proud of.”
Woods is 38, with more of his career behind him than in front. That has perhaps never been more apparent than now, as he works his way back from the March 31 procedure he underwent on his back. He said Tuesday that he had not been pain-free for perhaps two years, and that though he doesn’t yet have his familiar explosiveness, he is no longer dealing with the pain that had interfered with his golf for so long. That, in turn, allows him to remain defiant about his future, even though the most recent of his 14 major championships came more than six years ago, even though he has missed six majors in the past six years because of three separate injuries.
“Very optimistic,” he said. “I couldn’t have said that going into the surgery. I wasn’t even functioning. Needed help to get out of bed. But now I’m able to do everything I want to do: play with my kids and play the game I love to play.”
The other 119 players in the Quicken Loans National — a tournament staged by Woods’s foundation, which in turn benefits from it — are quite aware of Woods’s presence. As Spieth left the driving range Tuesday, he noted the crowd of media watching Woods go through the normally mundane task of hitting practice balls.
“Oh, everybody’s hanging out here?” Spieth deadpanned. “That’s weird.”
But even as Woods’s back would seem to raise questions about his future — this week, then next month at the British Open and beyond — his competitors understand precisely what it means that he’s playing again.
“There’s always a fascination in terms of watching Tiger play golf and the run that he’s been on throughout his career and what he still has to achieve in terms of his goals,” said 2013 U.S. Open champ Justin Rose, referencing Woods’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 majors. “I think golf will get really exciting if he starts winning a couple more majors, and the race to 18 becomes incredibly on again.”
For now, though, the tedium of baby steps. Woods did not play a practice round Tuesday, opting to rest and take to the course at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, when he appears in a pro-am. He said just after the surgery, he could putt — but he had to fill the holes in the practice green at his Jupiter Island, Fla., home so that he didn’t have to bend over to pick up balls out of the cup. He then chipped and pitched, and as he felt better, added 10 yards each day.
“Some days, we’d say, ‘Stay here for a couple of days,’ and other days, ‘You can go ahead and progress the next day,’ ” Woods said. “That’s how it went to the point where I was out there hitting drivers a couple of weeks ago, and then started playing golf.”
Even as he progressed to playing full rounds — riding on the back of a golf cart rather than sitting, which would cause his back to stiffen up — he remained uncertain about his return. The target, he said, was the British Open, which begins July 17. Then, he realized something: “I’m actually probably ahead of schedule.”
So at around 2:30 p.m. last Friday — just two-and-a-half hours before the deadline to commit to his own event — he called his agent, Mark Steinberg, to say he would play. One admission Tuesday: “If this wasn’t the foundation and our impact that we can have with kids, I probably would not” have played, Woods said.
So here he is, tackling a Congressional layout on which he has won twice, but that is annually one of the toughest on tour. Woods, though, seemed unconcerned about suffering a setback. “The risk is minimal,” he said. The plan is to assess his performance and physical well-being after this tournament, take two weeks off, and then tee it up again at Royal Liverpool, where he won the British Open in 2006.
There, his intention will be what it always is: win. But as he embarks on his next chapter, he knows those intentions now have limits.
“Expectations don’t change,” Woods said. “That’s the ultimate goal. 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.”