Tiger Woods had not played a competitive round of golf in 109 days before teeing it up in the opening round of the Quicken Loans National at the famed Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, on Thursday.
He is Tiger, yes. But for much of his round Thursday he looked more like any other golfer who was attempting to play for the first time in more than three months after undergoing back surgery.
That was to be expected, and it doesn't really matter in the big picture that Woods no doubt is looking at. Even though he struggled mightily early on and rallied late to finish with an opening-round score of 74 that was three over par, Woods' return never really was much about whatever score he posted.
It was about having the most dynamic personality and player in the game back on the course, hitting shots that mattered again.
It also is more about how his back feels—not just immediately after Thursday's round, when he pronounced that it felt fine, per USA Today, but how it feels tomorrow and the day after. And if he makes the cut, how he feels Monday after playing all weekend.
Also for Woods, it was about taking that first step on the road back that he hopes will allow him to compete at a much higher level later this summer when the final two 2014 majors are held. The British Open will be held July 17-20 at Royal Liverpool, followed by the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club August 7-10.
As CBS Sports' Kyle Porter wrote, "This isn't much more than a trial run for the British Open at Royal Liverpool and the rest of the season. If he makes the cut, great, if he doesn't, it's far from panic time."
Mostly, Thursday at Congressional seemed like a celebration, just having Woods back in the professional golf mix. And his fellow competitors knew it, as Ernie Els told The Associated Press on Wednesday (via WJLA.com):
It's going to be an exciting time for himself [Woods] and for the fans to see what he can do. And then we've got some great young players coming through, winning big events now ...guys who have won major championships and are really exciting players. You've got a guy that's reaching almost 40 who is...the best player of his generation, trying to become the best player of all time. So it's really exciting times.
Defending Quicken Loans National tournament champion Bill Haas also admitted that he knows exactly what's up.
"I'm not the one that moves the needle here on this tour," Haas told the AP. "So I think we're all loving having him back here playing. We want him to play healthy and we want him to contend in majors, because he's the lifeline of our tour and the reason everyone gets excited to watch."
Folks were certainly paying attention Thursday. Even though it wasn't pretty, it was still intriguing and entertaining, and there were far more eyeballs on the PGA Tour than there would have been if Woods hadn't played.
Ticket sales soared after Woods announced he would be playing, and Thursday the fans came early to Congressional and remained late.
Tiger started on the back nine and staggered his way through the early portion of his round, bogeying five of his first nine holes and seven of his first 12. But to some degree, that had to be expected.
The key was the way he rallied toward the end of the round, as well as how good he said he felt after it.
The struggles for Woods started when he hit his first tee shot on the par-three 10th into a green-side bunker, blasted out to about 12 feet and had to settle for bogey after missing the putt badly to the right side of the hole.
But later, there were plenty of flashes of the old Tiger.
He birdied the par-four 14th hole and the par-four fourth, then birdied twice more on his way in on the front nine on holes No. 7 and 8.
On No. 14, he ripped a 295-yard drive to the middle of the fairway, leaving himself 167 yards to the hole, and then hit his approach shot to eight feet before draining the birdie putt. It looked like vintage Tiger, as did the 332-yard drive to the fairway he hit on No. 3 and the other birdie putts he sank.
All in all, his round admittedly was a bit of a mixed bag. He hit four drives of 300 yards or more in length and hit nine of 14 fairways, but he reached only 10 of the 18 greens in regulation. Then again, he putted well—with five one-putts and the rest all two-putts for a total of 31 in the round.
So although there was bad to go along with the good, it was more than enough to keep us coming back to see what happens next with the world's former No. 1 player. It also left him pleased (via USA Today):
The score is not really indicative of how I played...I made so many little mistakes. So I played a lot better than the score indicated, which is good...The back's great. I had no issues at all. No twinges, no nothing. It felt fantastic. That's one of the reasons why I let go on those tee shots. I hit it pretty hard out there.
Reporters asked PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem what Woods' return to the sport means. He was blunt in his answer.
"He's the most impactful player that's in the sport and has been for a long time," Finchem told the AP. "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's always been a positive influence and he'll always will be as long as he's playing."
Finchem's statement just goes to prove once again that no matter how scandalous a great athlete's life may become away from whatever sport he excels in, he always will be forgiven as long as he can return to the arena with a game that fans find fascinating.
Woods made that clear Thursday when his round at Congressional was no doubt the most-watched, most-scrutinized event of the day—and maybe even to date on the PGA Tour this year.
Stay tuned for what happens next. We know you will.
Joe Menzer plays the occasional round of golf and writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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