BETHESDA, Md. — Bill Haas is the defending champion and an afterthought at the Quicken Loans National. He would have expected nothing less.
Tiger Woods is back at Congressional.
And this time, the tournament host will be doing more than just handing out the trophy.
Woods returns to competition Thursday for the first time in three months because of back pain that showed up occasionally, then more frequently, and ultimately led him have surgery just a week before the Masters.
It’s the second-longest hiatus of his career next to the eight months he missed from knee surgery in 2008 after he won the U.S. Open.
“I’m not the one that moves the needle here on this tour,” Haas said with a smile. “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.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem attended the opening ceremony and was asked on his way to the parking lot why it was important to have Woods back.
“Do I need to answer that question?” Finchem replied.
There were more fans for a Wednesday, more cameras, more interest, more speculation.
“He’s the most impactful player that’s in the sport and has been for a long time,” Finchem said. “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 be as long as he’s playing.”
Here’s what to look for in the return of the 14-time major champion:
THE RUST: When he announced last week he was ready to start competing, Woods acknowledged there would be rust. He hasn’t competed in 109 days, dating to March 9 at Doral when he had the highest score (78) for a final round in his PGA Tour career.
That might be a product of age and injuries — the back surgery on March 31, along with four knee surgeries.
Woods used to come out firing when he took long breaks not related to injuries. At the end of 2007, he went 10 weeks without competition and returned at the Target World Challenge, setting a tournament with a seven-shot victory.
After his ’08 knee surgery, Woods lost in the second round of the Match Play Championship, and then didn’t finish out of the top 10 in his eight stroke-play tournaments (he won three times) over the next five months.
His plan for Thursday?
“A little bit rusty, but really manage my way around this golf course,” he said. “This golf course is playing tough. The guys aren’t going to go really low here.”
THE COMPETITION: The Quicken Loans National has a stronger field than recent years with four of the top 10 in the world.
Woods will see two of them in the opening two rounds.
He plays at 8:12 a.m. on the 10th tee with Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.
Spieth finished sixth last year when he was still not a PGA Tour member. Now he is No. 9 in the world. Day won the Match Play Championship in February and can relate to Woods. He missed the next month with a thumb injury and has played only four times since his second career victory.
THE PRO-AM: Woods played 18 holes in public for the first time since Doral in the Wednesday pro-am, and it wasn’t inspiring.
He hit his opening tee shot in the water on the par-4 10th. He hit his next tee shot in the water on the 11th hole. He hit only two fairways on the back nine.
Then again, it was only a pro-am.
Woods said he made a grip adjustment on the back nine and was fine the rest of the way. And remember, he hit the ball beautifully during a practice round on the Wednesday before the 2006 U.S. Open began. Then, he missed the cut for the first time in a major.
THE TALK: Just about every player at Congressional said he was thrilled to have Woods back in the game.
“We need him out here,” Billy Horschel said during his pro-am.
“It’s good to have him back, man,” Ernie Els said as he started his pro-am round.
But when the tournament begins, only the fans (and TV executives) are likely to care.
“When you tee it up, it’s no different,” Haas said. “Once we’re on the course, unless you’re in a group with him, you don’t see him, you don’t know that’s he’s hitting it. Before the week starts, just like the other times he’s come back from a minor injury or something, we’re all excited to see him here playing.”
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