Tiger Woods was back on the PGA Tour for the first time in more than three months Thursday and said he felt “fantastic.”
He was talking about his back, not his game.
One day into his most recent return from injury, that’s what mattered to him.
Woods opened with two straight bogeys, made five more bogeys in a seven-hole stretch around the turn at tough Congressional and finally found his groove late in the opening round of the Quicken Loans National for a 3-over 74.
Woods was tied for 83rd — only 19 players had a higher score — and he will have to score better Friday if he wants to avoid missing the cut for the first time in two years.
“I made so many little mistakes,” Woods said. “So I played a lot better than the score indicate
Congressional had a lot to do with that.
Two weeks after a U.S. Open that had no rough, Congressional made it feel like one. Any shot just off the fairway was buried, making it difficult for even the powerful players to reach the green on some of the longer par 4s.
Greg Chalmers finished with three straight birdies for a 66 and a one-shot lead over Ricky Barnes and Freddie Jacobson. Defending champion Bill Haas, Patrick Reed, U.S. Open runner-up Erik Compton and Tyrone Van Aswegen shot 68. Compton birdied his last four holes.
“I didn’t think it was easy at all,” Chalmers said. “I played really well, and I think anybody who plays really well can shoot a low score. You just have to be coming out of the fairway, and I didn’t that the majority of the time today.”
Only 26 players in the 120-man field broke par. This day, however, was all about Woods.
He has been golf’s biggest draw since he turned pro in 1996 and accumulated 79 wins on the PGA Tour and 14 majors. He won the last two times he played Congressional, in 2009 and 2012.
Even with an early start, the gallery lined the entire left side of the 218-yard 10th hole, with hundreds of others watching from the patio and veranda of the famed clubhouse at Congressional.
Two holes into Woods’ opening round, they had reason to ask: We waited three months for this?
But it wasn’t just Woods. He played with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, and that trio of top-10 players combined for six bogeys in two holes. All three of them were in the fairway on the same hole one time the entire round — on No. 11, the hardest at Congressional, and only because Day’s tee shot ricocheted off a tree.
Day had a 73, while Spieth shot 74.
“It was cool playing the first one back,” Spieth said. “I love playing alongside Jason, as well. We are all rooting for each other, and that’s a good feeling. It was hard to root for each other because it just looked like the lid was closed on the hole. But once we all started hitting a couple fairways, it got better at the end.”
Woods looked about the same as he has all year. He gave away shots with his short game, with some ordinary chips and not making as many putts as he once did.
On his second hole, No. 11, he had a 50-foot putt from the fringe that came up 18 feet short of the hole. He missed consecutive 6-foot putts — one for birdie, one for par.
He did most of the damage to his card around the turn, failing to get up-and-down for par on the 15th, 17th and 18th holes, hitting a poor chip from the side of a bunker on the long par-3 second, pulling a pitching wedge into a bunker on No. 3 and missing a 5-foot putt.
That put him at 6 over for the round. At the time, Day was 4 over and Spieth was 5 over.
“We were all kind of looking to break 80,” Woods said. “It was a bit of a fight today for all of us, but we all hung in there.”
Woods found some rhythm from there, hitting an approach from 196 yards on the 467-yard fourth hole to 3 feet, and ending with short birdie putts on the par-3 seventh and short par-4 eighth by wisely using the slopes in the greens to feed it close to the hole.
More telling was his final hole. He thought he had a chance to end his round with a 35-foot birdie putt, and as it broke just right of the cup, he quickly dropped to a crouch and then rose up to go mark his ball. That was the best evidence there was no problem with his back.
“The back’s great,” Woods said. “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.”
Woods last played at Doral on March 9, when he closed with a 78 while coping with pain in his lower back. He had microdiscectomy surgery March 31, causing him to miss the Masters and U.S. Open.
His return this soon was a surprise, and Woods was candid in saying that he might not have played if the Quicken Loans National did not benefit his foundation’s work with children. He also made it clear he was not risking further injury by playing now.
The only issue Thursday was rust.
“We saw what happened when he found his rhythm,” Spieth said, alluding to Woods making three birdies over his last six holes, and missing only one green.