At some level, professional golf returned to normal at 8:12 a.m. Thursday, what with Congressional Country Club’s enormous clubhouse dotted with spectators, with the gallery lining the ropes alongside the par-3 10th hole just after breakfast. Sure, Tiger Woods’s first shot in 31 / 2 months flew the green into a bunker. And yes, he opened his comeback round with a pair of bogeys, showing the expected corrosion in parts of his game.
But there is little doubt that the uneven, 3-over-par 74 he shot in the first round of the Quicken Loans National meant something more to golf as a sport than the occasional chunked chip shot or wayward iron — both of which Woods hit Thursday. On a global sporting scale, the PGA Tour stop in Bethesda this week is cast against everything from the World Cup to Wimbledon. Without Woods, it drowns. With him, it at least competes.
“It was cool,” said 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who played in Woods’s group and struggled to a 74 himself. “It was great to see everyone behind Tiger welcoming him back and wishing him well.”
A sense of relief was evident here Thursday: three men wearing orange shirts emblazoned with the words “He’s Back!” and cries of “Thanks for playing” between one green and the next tee. The galleries could have followed Greg Chalmers, who closed his round with three consecutive birdies to shoot 5-under 66 and take the lead. They could have followed Ricky Barnes or Freddie Jacobson, who were a shot back after 67s.
That may happen over the weekend should those men hold those positions. But on Thursday, fans’ focus was clear.
“It’s nice to get back out here playing again,” Woods said after a warm, breezy morning round. “I unfortunately have been, in my career, on the sidelines enough, so it’s always fun to come back out here and play against these guys, the best players in the world, and to get out here and see what I can do.”
From the moment he committed to this tournament last Friday, Woods said he expected rust. What he got was the kind found on a car that sits out behind the barn, exposed to years of thunderstorms.
“I made so many little mistakes,” he said.
So break it down. He actually was outstanding off the tee, which was essential given the nastiness of Congressional’s rough — thicker in some spots than it was during the 2011 U.S. Open here. “It feels like a U.S. Open right now,” said Jason Day, the third member of Woods’s group.
To the day’s marquee threesome, each of whom made the turn in 4-over 39, that was true. But Woods was fortunate he hit 9 of 14 fairways because his iron game was rickety. He missed eight greens, including some egregious shots from the dead-center of the fairway. He had struggled from around the green, too, outright smothering a chip at 17 that led to one of his seven bogeys. Throw in three missed putts from inside six feet, and Woods looked like a person who hadn’t played a competitive round since March 9, someone who had back surgery March 31 — which, of course, he is.
“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 just not the same. It’s not the same as tournament golf. . . . It unfortunately took a while to get the feel for it.”
Others had the feel. Chalmers, a 40-year-old Australian who has never won a PGA Tour event, has missed 10 cuts in 18 starts this year and withdrawn one other time. But his three closing birdies — on Nos. 7-9 — were made with purely struck irons, two putts of three feet and another of six. And yet he said, “I didn’t think it was easy at all.”
A bunch of players were on his heels. Barnes is the 2002 U.S. Amateur champ who contended at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, but he has never won a PGA Tour event, either. Jacobson, from Sweden, has won just once. Patrick Reed, who shot 68, is 23 and on the rise, but since he won at Doral — Woods’s last tournament — and declared himself a top-five player in the world, he has missed five cuts in eight events. Bill Haas is the defending champ of this event and matched that 68, and U.S. Open runner-up Erik Compton, he of the two heart transplants, posted his own 68 that included four straight birdies to finish.
“Great feeling,” Compton said.
And yet for a day, they are ancillary. Woods’s rounds are always analyzed, shot by shot. On Thursday, that was even enhanced.
“He’s the most impactful player that’s in the sport and has been for a long time,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “It gets people refocused on his career and his drive. Short-term benefits are that it sells more tickets, but that’s not really important. It’s just having him in the sport. He creates more interest.”
For that interest to last through the weekend, he must make the cut — no sure thing. That effort was helped, though, by a 7-iron at the par-3 seventh and a sand wedge into the par-4 eighth, both setting up short birdie putts. He said he was pain-free. “I had no issues at all,” he said.
And when he took off his hat and offered his hand to Spieth and to Day at the end of the round, his score might not have been normal. But his sport, for the first time in months, was.
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