Tiger Woods underwent back surgery the last day of March and hasn’t played a competitive round of golf in three-and-a-half months. In the meantime, he has missed two majors and lost the world’s No. 1 ranking. He began taking full swings with a golf club only within the past couple of weeks.
Yet Friday afternoon, Woods announced he would make his return to tournament play next week at the Quicken Loans National, the PGA Tour stop that benefits his foundation and is staged at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.
“After a lot of therapy, I have recovered well and will be supporting my foundation next week at the Quicken Loans National,” Woods wrote on his Facebook page. “I’ve just started to hit full shots, but it’s time to take the next step. I will be a bit rusty, but I want to play myself back into competitive shape. Excited for the challenge ahead.”
Woods’s competitive expectations may be low — understandable since he struggled to a 78 in the final round of the Cadillac Championship on March 9 at Doral, his last appearance before surgery. But that he returns at Congressional, where his foundation’s staff has been making preparations for months, fundamentally changes the feel of the event in the first year that Quicken Loans replaces AT&T as the title sponsor.
Woods’s team said the 14-time major winner would not have entered any tournament, including his own, had he not been cleared by his doctors. Woods didn’t make the announcement he would play until after 3 p.m. on Friday, less than two hours from the deadline to commit to the event.
“Is it coincidental? Yes,” said Mark Steinberg, Woods’s longtime agent. “But I can tell you this: If he hadn’t tested out his back under the conditions that he knows he needs to test it in over the last couple days, and if the back wouldn’t have responded to date the way it has, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was his tournament with a new title sponsor in Quicken Loans.
“He wants to do the right thing for the long haul. He wants to play in 10 to 15 more Quicken Loans Nationals, so playing before he was ready would not be prudent.”
Since its inception as the AT&T National in 2007, Woods has missed his own tournament three times: in 2008 following injuries to the ligaments in his left knee and a broken left leg; in 2011, when the event was held in suburban Philadelphia and he sat out with an Achilles’ tendon injury; and last year, when an elbow problem suffered at the U.S. Open forced him to the sideline.
His appearance has an impact across the board. When he played and won the event in 2009, 194,073 people showed up over the course of the week, including 43,936 for Sunday’s final round. Last year, when he showed up Sunday only to hand the trophy to winner Bill Haas, attendance for the week was 146,909 and 35,565 on Sunday.
“Whenever Tiger is in your field, it elevates all aspects of the event,” said Mike Antolini, in his first year as tournament director for the Tiger Woods Foundation. “Given that this is the event where he is the tournament host and two-time champion, that elevation is really exponentially increased.”
This does, too, seem to be a sudden about-face. Steve Durante, Congressional’s president, had fielded questions from members for months about whether Woods would play. His instinct: “Absolutely, positively not,” he said. That would have been disappointing in a year in which Congressional’s membership approved an extension to host the event in 2016, ’18 and ’20.
“It does a lot of things,” Durante said. “It makes the members who voted for the tournament a lot happier. It gets the community more excited. It’s great for the PGA Tour. It helps everyone.”
Steinberg said he couldn’t provide a specific timeline of Woods’s progression. When he came to Congressional on May 19 for media day, an annual appearance meant to drum up interest in the tournament, Woods could chip only a little. He had not yet taken a full swing, and he expressed frustration at both the pace of recovery from the procedure — called a microdiscectomy — and the inactivity that was required for his back to heal.
The back problem originally caused him to withdraw during the final round of the Honda Classic on March 2. He underwent the surgery on March 31 in Park City, Utah, and announced the next day he would miss the Masters for the first time as a professional. He subsequently missed last week’s U.S. Open, meaning injuries have cost him six majors since 2008.
Steinberg said Woods would not make up a schedule for the rest of the summer until he evaluates how he comes through the tournament at Congressional. “That’s undecided,” Steinberg said. He could play at the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia next week if he wanted another start before the British Open, which will be held July 17-20 at Royal Liverpool, where Woods won the title in 2006.
“His excitement level’s high,” Steinberg said. “He’s been exceptionally patient, and he’s really done what the doctors and trainers have asked of him. I think because of that, his body and his back reacted accordingly.
“So he’s excited. He’s been on the shelf for what, the better part of three months? So to be able to come back and be able to feel like he’s ready to come back and have that transpire the week of his tournament in Washington, D.C., with a brand-new title sponsorship in Quicken Loans, that adds an additional level of excitement.”