BETHESDA, Md. — Tiger Woods got the competition he wanted, even if it was only for two days.
In his first tournament in more than three months because of back surgery, Woods made back-to-back birdies around the turn at Congressional and was one shot off the cut line when it all fell apart at the Quicken Loans National.
A tee shot into the hazard. A bad break when his ball got hung up in the collar of a bunker instead of tumbling into a flat lie in the sand. A poor chip. Missing the green in the wrong spot from the middle of the fairway. It added to four straight bogeys, sending him to a 75 to miss the cut by four shots.
“I need to get back into competitive feel and just to feel it, to hit shots and shake some stuff off and see how things work,” he said.
That competitive feel returned in other ways. Woods walked off the 14th green after his fourth straight bogey muttering to himself, clearly frustrated that one area of his game that used to be so reliable had abandoned him. He missed 16 greens over two rounds and saved par just three times.
Standing on a hill near the 15th green, he looked back toward a large video board that displayed this message about the cut: 76 players currently at +3.
Woods was at 8 over at the time. A late birdie did little to change the fact he was headed home.
It was only the 10th time in 300 starts as a pro on the PGA Tour that Woods had missed the cut, and the first in two years. And it was the first time he saw this as positive, starting with the fact he was playing again.
“I came back four weeks earlier than we thought I could,” Woods said. “I had no setbacks. I got my feel for playing tournament golf. I made a ton of simple, little mistakes — misjudging things and missing the ball on the wrong sides and just didn’t get up-and-down on little, simple shots. Those are the little things I can correct.”
Marc Leishman of Australia turned potential bogey into unlikely birdie when he holed out from 127 yards on the par-5 ninth hole on his way to a 5-under 66 and a four-way share of the lead going into the weekend.
Oliver Goss, another Aussie who is making his second pro start, had a bogey-free 66 and joined Leishman at 6-under 136 along with Ricky Barnes (69) and Patrick Reed (68), who already has won twice this year.
Woods was 13 shots behind at 7-over 149.
It wasn’t the largest 36-hole gap from the leaders in the previous nine times he missed the cut on the PGA Tour. It just looked that way.
Woods took two shots to get out of a plugged lie in a bunker on the fifth hole and made double bogey. He three-putted for par on the next hole and never looked more sloppy than on the short par-4 eighth. He was in perfect position after hitting a big drive, 61 yards from the hole at the right angle. His pitch was too strong and left of the flag, leaving him a downhill chip from the collar. He hit that 7 feet by and missed the par putt.
Even so, Woods took encouragement from not feeling any pain in his back, and from swinging as hard as he wanted with his driver. That’s what concerned him about playing this week. Turns out it was the two shortest clubs in his bag — the wedge and putter — that did him in.
It was surprising to see Woods go straight from the range to the tee in both rounds. Most players give themselves a few extra minutes in the chipping area.
“The short game was off,” Woods said. “I’ve been practicing on Bermuda grass, and I grew the grass up at my house and it was Bermuda. But come out here and play rye, it’s totally different. And it showed. I was off. I probably shout have spent more time chipping over on the chipping green than I did. But that’s the way it goes.”
If it was lack of competition that hurt Woods, he faces a minor dilemma. He is not playing next week at The Greenbrier Classic — Woods said he is taking his two children on a vacation — and it might not be prudent to cram in a bunch of tournaments so soon after back surgery to alleviate a pinched nerve in his back.
His next tournament would appear to be the British Open at Hoylake, where he won in firm, dry conditions in 2006, when he hit driver only one time all week.
“If it were anybody else, I would say that I would expect kind of a struggle. But you just never know with Tiger,” Jordan Spieth said after his own brilliant display of a short game that allowed him to make the cut. “He just got a couple rounds under his belt. So he’s going to be a severe threat at the British — probably a favorite — and after playing these couple rounds, I think he’ll take something from it.
“He’s not that far off from being right back to where he was.”
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