He is putting the "back" in "comeback." Golf deity Tiger Woods returns to PGA Tour competition this week at the Quicken Loans National, serving a unique dual role as tournament host and indomitable headliner.
Woods has conquered Congressional Country Club twice before, winning this event in 2009 and 2012. Another exceptional field has turned out this year, but all eyes will be on Woods in Bethesda, Maryland.
The last time Woods teed it up was in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in early March. Back surgery to address a pinched nerve was followed by rehabilitation, and the game's main attraction was forced to miss the first two major championships in the Masters and the U.S. Open.
With two more majors on the horizon, Woods is keen to gear up for them in style, per Golf Central:
Tiger Woods, on his expectations: “Expectations don’t change. (A win) is the ultimate goal. It’s just going to be a little harder this time”— Golf Central (@GolfCentral) June 24, 2014
So, Woods is indeed in it to win it, but what else would anyone expect?
What is far more difficult to project is how Woods' body will respond—and what type of shape his game will be in. While all indications are good at the moment health-wise, injuries have not been a foreign concept for Woods, particularly in recent years.
Let's take a look at some of the other players in action at Congressional along with when and where to catch Woods and several of golf's other big names.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com.
When: Thursday, June 26, through Sunday, June 29
Where: Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit PGATour.com.
Purse: $6,500,000; Winner's Share: $1,170,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
|Thursday, June 26||2:30 - 6:30 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Friday, June 27||2:30 - 6:30 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Saturday, June 28||1-2:30 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
|Sunday, June 29||1-2:30 p.m., 3-6:30 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
Analyzing Marquee Groups
Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth
The bee's knees and prodigies. Day and Spieth are two of golf's premier young players, and they could probably learn a thing or two from Woods' early success.
Woods is a cold and calculated competitor between the ropes. Given that he is hosting and has acknowledged that his chances of winning will be slimmer than usual, this group should be even more fun to watch.
Yahoo Sports' Shane Bacon couldn't help but poke fun at Woods being the senior-most member of this trio:
Smart to pair Tiger with two young guys in Jordan Spieth & Jason Day. If he needs help getting ball out of the hole, they have young backs.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) June 24, 2014
If not for a bothersome thumb injury, this could have been the season in which Day's star truly soared. The Aussie won the WGC-Match Play Championship in February but couldn't make another start until the Masters, where he fought to a respectable 20th-place finish.
Prior to the Quicken Loans National, Day reflected on the frustrating, unwanted hiatus, per PGATour.com:
I learned more out of this injury than I have the past previous injuries that I've had. Being out for three months is very frustrating, especially with how I played at the start of the year. I'm just glad it's behind me and I can move on.
[...] If I didn't get injured, I felt like I had a really good shot of getting to No. 1. Obviously getting back to No. 6 in the world is pretty special, as well.. I have to kind of slowly work my way back up there. This would be a good start to win this week but there's a lot of golf to be played from tomorrow on.
Well, then. He isn't running from expectations. The 2011 U.S. Open was held at this venue, where Day finished in second place to runaway, eight-stroke winner Rory McIlroy. Day quietly finished tied for fourth in this year's U.S. Open, which also featured a virtuoso championship performance from Martin Kaymer.
What better way to push harder toward that world No. 1 ambition than for Day see Woods up close?
Speaking of which, Spieth is just 20 years old and already among the planet's best.
There is reason to believe Spieth will become the new king of golf when Woods cedes his throne. Having played in the final group at the Masters and The Players Championship this year already, Spieth is gaining invaluable experience at a young age. These are things even Woods wasn't accomplishing at the same stage of his life.
Spieth, who finished sixth at this event in 2013, has a long way to go to match Woods' career trajectory from age 21 and beyond. However, he has not seemed at all intimidated by the enormity of the highest stakes or his meteoric rise.
Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley and Ernie Els
Rose won the Quicken Loans National in 2009, but not when it was held at Congressional. He missed the cut at the 2011 U.S. Open here as well, which is somewhat surprising given how solid of a ball-striker Rose is.
But with the exception of a missed cut at the Memorial, Rose has been playing extremely well, finishing in a tie for eighth at the Zurich Classic, fifth at the Wells Fargo Championship and joint fourth at TPC Sawgrass. In his defense of the U.S. Open, Rose placed tied for 12th.
A final-round 67 at the second major saw Bradley record a career-best result with a tie for fourth at Pinehurst No. 2. The fiery, fidgety PGA Championship victor was excited about his vault up the leaderboard, per USOpen.com's Dave Shedloski.
"I’m so pumped," Bradley said. "I was nervous coming down to the end, because there are so many Ryder Cup points on the line here. I was thinking about it. And it’s a battle for me because of how bad I want to be on that team. I know that one shot here or there is double points, so it’s … it was nerve-wracking."
With the incentive of the Ryder Cup driving him, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Bradley light it up. He's similar to Rose in that if he gets the putter hot, few can go lower. There should be a fair amount of birdies in this group.
The 2013-14 campaign has been a bit of a rough go for The Big Easy. Els is finding better form as of late, though he does need to get something going soon. Ranking 99th in the FedEx Cup points standings isn't exactly stellar for a Hall of Famer, and Els' swing is poetry in motion. It would be nice to see him get back on track.
Els won the 1997 U.S. Open at this venue. Perhaps drawing on previous success—albeit long ago—will help him along beginning Thursday.
Jason Dufner, Bill Haas, and K.J. Choi
Choi claimed victory at the inaugural edition of this tournament, formerly named the AT&T National. It had been a while since we'd heard from him, but Choi fired four rounds in the 60s en route to a tie for second at last week's Travelers Championship.
Distance off the tee hasn't been Choi's forte, leaving him with longer approach shots. One positive is that he ranks 10th on tour in strokes gained putting, so if he's on from tee to green, he could keep his momentum going.
Haas is the defending champion and shouldn't be counted out. He has the ability to stripe his irons and is one of the steadiest players on the circuit in regular tour events.
Haas has won the FedEx Cup before, so it's hard to doubt his credentials outside the majors. Since Haas hasn't fared well in those, he should have extra incentive to begin preparing for the Open Championship with a solid four rounds.
As for Dufner, the ever-stoic reigning PGA champion, he had some interesting thoughts to share regarding his future at a charity function in Massachusetts last week.
"I’m not going to play golf forever," said Dufner, per Back9Network's Matthew Castonguay. "I’m not going to be one of those guys who plays the senior tour. [It's] not for me, I got another, maybe, five years left of doing this and then I’ll be on to something else, but I’m sure it’ll involve golf."
How will Tiger Woods fare at the Quicken Loans National?
Say it ain't so, Duff Daddy. The numerous waggles before his Ben Hogan-modeled swing, his bulging lower lip and his sense of humor away from the links have helped Dufner's popularity explode. Well, that and the Dufnering phenomenon.
Dufner has the Wanamaker Trophy to back all that up. Now, to bring things full circle, he will defend that prestigious hardware at Valhalla in August. The last time the PGA Championship was held there, it was Woods who came away with a win over Bob May in a thrilling playoff.
Even sooner will be the Open Championship, beginning July 17. The venue is Hoylake, where Woods won in 2006. That only accentuates the attention surrounding Woods' first start in months. Golf has been starving for Woods' presence and will continue to be captivated as long as he's able to chase Jack Nicklaus' all-time major record of 18 wins.
For quite some time now—since the 2008 U.S. Open—Woods has been stuck on 14. It once seemed inevitable that he'd catch the Golden Bear. The Quicken Loans National is Woods' first step back toward major No. 15. His expectations haven't changed in terms of winning. How Woods fares at Congressional will determine whether golf fans feel the same.