BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — About two dozen photographers lined up in a row on the range Tuesday at Congressional, a reminder that golf is different when Tiger Woods is around.
And that was before Woods even arrived to hit balls for 35 minutes.
He was last seen wearing golf shoes on March 9, when he walked gingerly off the golf course at Doral with back pain that had been bothering him off and on since August 2012 and finally reached a point that he chose surgery over playing two majors.
Woods returns at the Quicken Loans National with big hopes and realistic expectations — and with no pain.
Asked for an opening comment on where he is with his recovery, Woods smiled and said, “I’m right here.”
“It’s been an interesting road,” Woods said. “This has been quite a tedious little process, but been one where I got to a point where I can play competitive golf again. And it’s pretty exciting.”
Dressed in black, with shoes the company colors of his new endorsement deal (MusclePharm), Woods turned the routine into news. After each booming tee shot, he casually walked forward a few paces, stooped to pick up his tee and to reload for the next shot.
Woods, who had back surgery on March 31, said the British Open was his target all along. He was candid in saying he might not be playing the Quicken Loans National — this is the first year for a new title sponsor — if it did not benefit his foundation.
That’s not to suggest he is coming back too early. Woods said he has been in constant contact with doctors and trainers as he slowly expanded his swing from chipping and putting to irons to wedges, all the way through the bag until he started swinging the driver a few weeks ago. He tried to add 10 yards of distance every couple of days, taking a break and getting treatment on days it didn’t feel quite right.
When he started putting, he would fill the holes on his practice green with sand to keep from bending over to pluck the ball out of the cup. When he felt strong enough to play, he said he would ride while standing on the back of the cart to avoid too much sitting.
Woods always has said he doesn’t play if he doesn’t think he can win. That’s still the objective, sprinkled with some reality.
It will have been 109 days without PGA Tour competition when he tees it up Thursday morning with Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.
“Expectations don’t change,” Woods said. “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 British Open is July 17-20 at Royal Liverpool, where Woods won in 2006 after missing the cut in a major for the first time at the U.S. Open. It also was his first major since his father died. Woods collected his 14th major two years later while playing on a shattered left leg at Torrey Pines.
He hasn’t won another since then, leaving him four short of the standard set by Jack Nicklaus.