- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The timing, as it turns out, wasn’t a coincidence.

When Tiger Woods announced last week he would make his return at the Quicken Loans National following a three-month layoff, which begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, it was partly because his recovery from back surgery had progressed enough to finally make a competitive round viable.

It was also, as Woods admitted Tuesday, because his charitable organization, the Tiger Woods Foundation, is the event’s primary sponsor.

“If it wasn’t the foundation and our impact that we can have with kids, I probably would not [have returned],” Woods said. “Our goal was the British Open. I healed extremely fast.”

Woods has been sidelined by a pinched nerve and herniated disc in his back, which he now believes he originally sustained during a round last October.

The injury was the latest in a long line of ailments that have sidelined the world’s most popular golfer over the past six years, including a strained ligament in his left elbow that kept him out of this tournament a year ago, an inflamed left Achilles tendon that lingered from 2010 through 2012 and a torn ACL in his left knee in 2008.

At age 38, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Woods will be able to play. His pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ legendary 18 major championship victories, once a certainty, is increasingly in doubt. He missed the Masters in April for the first time since 1994, two years before he turned professional, and sat out of the U.S. Open earlier this month for the second time in four years.

Many of the sport’s icons — Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, to name a few — have continued their association with golf through a variety of related pursuits. All three have dabbled in golf course design, while Nicklaus and Palmer, like Woods, host their own PGA Tour events — the Memorial Tournament and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, respectively.

Woods didn’t speak about retirement earlier this week — he has not publicly outlined how long he plans to play on the PGA Tour — but said that regardless of his future, he will always remain committed to playing in tournaments sponsored by his foundation, of which there are currently three.

“I think his biggest stumbling block probably is going to be his health, and I think his health is something that he thinks he’s doing very well with,” Nicklaus said late last month at The Memorial. “If he’s healthy, I think Tiger’s got 10-plus years to play top-quality tournament golf. And certainly, as I’ve said many times, he’s got a little over 40 tournaments to play the major championships. He’s only got to win five to pass my record. As good a player as he is, I don’t think that should be a big deal — but then again, he’s got to be healthy to be able to do it.”

Former No. 1-ranked player Ernie Els, who has ventured into golf course design but also owns a winemaking business, said the biggest concern for players as they hit their 40s is spending time with family. Els has a 15-year-old daughter, Samantha, and a 12-year-old son, Ben, who is autistic, and between supporting them and tending to his businesses, it can be difficult to find time for golf.

Woods has a daughter, Sam, who just turned 7, and a son, Charlie, who is 5.

“At the end of the day, if you ask Phil [Mickelson] and Tiger and myself and Vijay [Singh], the guys that are getting in their 40s now, golf is still a passion for us,” Els said. “You might not spend as much time on the practice tees, but your time that you spend is really focused time.”

For organizers of the Quicken Loans National, Woods‘ decision to return this week has provided a predictable boost to the bottom line. Tournament director Mike Antolini said Wednesday that while he couldn’t provide a number of tickets that were sold solely because of Woods‘ inclusion, he did know that the number sold on Friday, when Woods made his announcement on Facebook, was approximately double the number of tickets that were sold on that same Friday a year ago.

“Inside the ropes, of course, he brings the eyeballs, so we’re excited for what the week may become,” Mr. Antolini said. “Whether it’s more people tuning in, certainly our ticket sales have realized an immediate boost with him announcing that he’s playing.”

Even Woods‘ fellow players, all of whom will face a more difficult path to a title because of his presence, have praised his return. Justin Rose, who won the AT&T National in 2010, when it was held in suburban Philadelphia, said people will always be fascinated by watching Woods play. Bill Haas, last year’s champion, said when Woods is playing in tournaments, everyone wants to beat his score.

How long that opportunity presents itself is unknown. While Woods believes he’s healthier now than he has been in two years, the specter of another injury is always looming.

“I just remember all the early years on tour, when I used to run 30 miles a week and just push it, no matter how hurt I was,” Woods said. “I would just go out there, still logging all the miles and do all the different things and still play tournament golf. I was winning, but I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to my body at the time. I have to now pick my spots — when I can and can’t push.”

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