Tiger Woods was back Thursday afternoon, playing at Congressional Country Club for the first time in three years. He was back in March, winning an official PGA Tour event for the first time in 932 days. He also was back earlier this month, becoming a multiple-winner on the Tour for the first time since 2009.
Of course, none of those feats answered the humongous question that hangs over golf: "When will Tiger be back?" However, each small step makes the query less relevant.
The further we move away from Thanksgiving 2009, the more we realize that, in many ways, Woods never left.
Sure, the results in his 2010 and 2011 seasons were largely forgettable, with unheard of finishes such as tied for 78th, tied for 44th and missed cuts. But he managed to compete in three of six Grand Slam tournaments, arguably the only events that matter at this point, validating his position as ratings candy for TV networks.
His game has suffered ups and down, but interest hasn't waned one bit.
As suspected, no gallery was larger than the one following Woods, K.J. Choi and defending champion Nick Watney after the trio teed off in the AT&T National at 12:50 p.m. Woods scuffled through the early holes, sinking a birdie at No. 9 to make the turn at even par. His mates didn't fare much better on the front nine, with Watney at 1 over and Choi at plus 4.
At least Woods had the crowd to cheer him on. Choi and Watney enjoyed isolated words of encouragement here and there. But Woods was exhorted by ladies and gentlemen alike on both sides of every fairway. "C'mon Tiger, I'm still pulling for you; I love you!" shouted one woman, drawing a smile from Woods as he walked toward the fourth hole.
He failed to gain any momentum on the back nine, though, scraping his way to 1 over for the day. That left him five shots behind the leader, but close enough to ensure another captive audience Friday.
"I didn't hit it that bad today," he said. "I just didn't get a lot out of my round. A couple short-game shots on the back nine out of those bunkers — a lot of sand in those bunkers — and we have to hit the ball a little bit closer to it. I didn't do that, and I stuck too many of them in the ground."
It would be a shame if Woods fell out of contention at his own tournament. The effect locally wouldn't be nearly as much as nationally. While ratings for the CBS broadcast undoubtedly would suffer, crowds at Congressional would remain eager for a peek at the world's most interesting golfer.
There's no guarantee that Woods ever will be "back" in terms of the dominance he exhibited earlier this century, pre-injuries/swing changes/Escalade. Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major championships was never a done deal, because health issues, personal turmoil and mental blocks always loom as potential obstacles.
But Woods' struggles don't affect his most fervent followers, most of whom are less-than-avid golf fans otherwise. Golfers and true fans aren't particularly fond of the casual observers who flock to tournaments and TV sets when he plays, not-so-much when he doesn't play. The ordeals since 2009 only make him more human and more fascinating to those folks.
For instance, take George Cooper, who was at Congressional on Thursday after receiving the ultimate present from his wife — a day trip to follow Woods.
"I flew in today and I'm flying out tomorrow," said the 58-year-old Miami resident, a retired U.S. Senate worker. "This is my first golf tournament. It's something I've always wanted to do.
"My wife set it up for me in May."
Cooper said he started playing golf after Woods turned pro because "I saw that it's possible." Like many, his PGA Tour viewing habits are dictated by Woods' presence. If he's there, then Cooper is there.
For hordes of fans such as him, the question isn't: When will Tiger be back?
It's when did he leave?
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