Tiger Woods' long-awaited return to the tee box is finally here. The former World No. 1's nearly four-month break following back surgery concludes Thursday, when he will tee off at the 2014 Quicken Loans National.
The event, which is hosted by Woods and benefits his charity, has often been pegged as a likely comeback spot as he prepares for The Open Championship. Woods, 38, underwent a microdiscectomy in late March to fix a pinched nerve that had been bothering him for "several" months.
The absence has cost Woods a shot at two major championships, with this month's U.S. Open marking the six-year anniversary since his last title in one of golf's premier events. The drought is by far the longest of his career, and at his advancing age, the injuries are starting to pile up. He's now missed six majors—a year-and-a-half's worth—since his win at the 2008 U.S. Open.
But Woods has kept a calm face amid the uncertainty. Returning at Congressional puts him slightly ahead of the expected recovery for his procedure, and he said it's been a long time since he's felt this healthy on the course.
"I healed extremely fast, thanks to my physios, and all my nutrition and all the different things that we did and the protocols and the MRIs, and all the different steps that we have done along the way have allowed me to get to this point," Woods told reporters Tuesday.
The first competitive test for Woods' back came Wednesday at the tournament's pro-am. His game was understandably rusty in spots. Woods looked like a player nearly four months removed from action, spraying drives and mishitting shots he'd make in his sleep when fully healthy. The important thing was that Woods said his body felt fine after the nine-hole outing.
If Woods is as healthy as he says, the rest of the field needs to be on alert. Woods is the only two-time winner of the event, having previously taken home the trophy in 2009 and 2012. It's worth noting that he's won two of the five years that the Quicken Loans event has been held in Bethesda. (There was a two-year stretch when it was held at Aronimink Golf Club in Pennsylvania.)
As he's gotten older, Woods has become increasingly reliant on pet courses to increase his win total. In 2013, all five of Woods' wins came on courses he'd previously tamed. Congressional is not quite at the level of Bay Hill in terms of Woodsian dominance, but it's a course he likes and has consistently played well at.
"Expectations don't change," Woods said when asked if he expected to win. "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."
The reality is that everyone, Woods included, treats this weekend as a tuneup. He has this week to gauge how his body feels over the course of a tournament and will have time to undergo further treatment if needed. The Open Championship is not for a few more weeks, and Woods is highly unlikely to play in any other events prior to heading to Merseyside.
If Woods is healthy and plays like it, then that's all the better for the game of golf. If Woods came back too soon—he's said publicly that he wouldn't be playing this week if it weren't benefiting his foundation—the same debate we've had for months will be reignited.
Everyone on the PGA Tour is hoping for the former.
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