The lasting image of the 2014 Quicken Loans National, almost regardless of what happens over the weekend, occurred in the heat of Friday afternoon at Congressional Country Club’s 11th hole. There, Tiger Woods contorted his body — right leg up on a ledge, left foot down near a creek, arms lashing at a golf ball below — in an effort to salvage his hole, his round, his comeback. He got club to ball. He could not, however, save par. Nor could he reach the weekend.
For so long, as Woods missed more than three months following back surgery, it looked as if his own tournament would be without him. Now, after a second-round 75 left him a dismal 7 over par for two days, it has said goodbye to him.
Woods’s health held up. His game did not.
“The back is in the past,” Woods said afterward.
So is some unsightly golf — and no one knows what to make of what comes next. Of all the ridiculous stats about Woods’s career — including his second-only-to-Jack-Nicklaus 14 majors — the most absurd might be that since his pro debut in 1996, he has now missed the cut in just 10 of 299 starts.
But this trunk-slamming moment is both more understandable and more scrutinized than many of the others, the former because he hadn’t played competitively since March 9, the latter because these two rounds will be his only form of competition before the British Open begins July 17.
“I missed the cut by four shots,” Woods said. “That’s a lot.”
Indeed, he beat only 12 of the 120 players in the field. He finished an astonishing 13 shots behind the four leaders — Australian Marc Leishman, his 20-year-old countryman Oliver Goss, 23-year-old American Patrick Reed and former U.S. Amateur champ Ricky Barnes, all at 6-under 136 through two rounds. Woods missed seven of 14 fairways and, more damaging, five of seven putts in the four-to-eight-feet range.
And yet, when he was done, he stood before a bank of cameras and declared himself encouraged.
“A lot of positives to take away from these last two days,” Woods said. “Even though I missed the cut by four shots — the fact that I was even able to play. . . . I had no setbacks. I got my feel for playing tournament golf. I made a ton of little, simple mistakes — misjudging things and missing the ball on the wrong sides and just didn’t get up-and-down on little simple shots. Those are the little things I can correct, which is nice.”
He did not correct them Friday. After Goss, playing in just his second tournament as a pro, eased his way through a five-birdie, no-bogey 66 in the morning, Congressional’s big hairy course seemed docile. Leishman matched that 66, also bogey-free, and Barnes got as low as 8 under before a pair of bogeys on his second nine. Reed racked up six birdies in his second straight 68.
The treacherous, punishing Blue Course? Where was it?
“So much can happen on this golf course,” Leishman said.
So much of it happened to Woods. At the par-4 fifth, he badly dumped his approach from 148 yards into the front bunker, where it buried itself. Double bogey. He crushed a drive at the little eighth — statistically the easiest par 4 on the course over two days — and had just 61 yards to the pin. He needed four to get down from there, an ugly bogey.
Still, when he birdied both Nos. 9 and 10, he was headed in the right direction, at 4 over and just a shot outside the cut.
“I just had to get past 11,” he said. He couldn’t, with his drive well right, just on the edge of that creek, which left him in the awkward stance. The resulting bogey was the first of four in a row, and his first tournament since his March 31 back surgery was effectively over.
“If it were anybody else, I would say that I would expect kind of a struggle,” said Jordan Spieth, who played with Woods. “But you just never know with Tiger. And you know, it showed the brilliance that he has — and that he’s capable of doing. He just got a couple of rounds under his belt.”
So the tournament, in its first year with Quicken Loans as a sponsor, will have a Tiger-free weekend. The galleries, which followed Woods start to finish, will certainly care. The field might not.
“We’re all out here trying to do the same thing,” Reed said. “Trying to play for a living.”
Woods has long since made his living. He is chasing history, with two majors missed this year and two more still to come. His preparation between now and then: vacation with his two children and only then “start gearing up.”
When Woods walked up 18, his fate already determined, the crowds still gathered and shouted his name. He smiled and joked with Jason Day’s caddie, missed his last birdie putt and was the last to leave the green, shaking hands with Joe LaCava, his own caddie, who now won’t haul a bag until the British Open.
“I hate to say it,” Woods said, “but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week.”
He signed his scorecard, then autograph after autograph standing at the fence outside Congressional’s clubhouse, surrounded by a phalanx of television cameras and security guards. When he was done, he pulled down the brim of his cap and walked through the door toward the locker room, a car and an airplane. Woods’s game, here, looked ragged. What it looks like when he next emerges is now the sport’s biggest question.