- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

There was no overwhelming wave of applause as Tiger Woods stepped onto the driving range at Congressional Country Club shortly before noon on Tuesday. The crushing mob that would have greeted Woods even two years ago was reduced to a subdued cluster of fans, few of whom bothered to vocalize their encouragement or pursue an autograph.

For now, Woods can revel in the calm of his much-awaited return. Come Thursday, when the first round of the Quicken Loans National begins, there will be no mistake: The world’s most popular golfer is back.

Two days before his first competitive round of golf in over three months, Woods spent roughly 45 minutes working through a selection of clubs on the driving range, eschewing a practice round in order to make it to the White House for an evening reception honoring last year’s Presidents Cup teams.

The session marked the first time Woods had practiced in public since undergoing a procedure to relieve the pressure of a pinched nerve in his back on March 31. When he tees off Thursday — he’s scheduled to join Jordan Spieth and Jason Day on the 10th tee at 8:12 a.m. — the next stage of his recovery can begin.

“Once I got back to where I was playing golf and knocking off rust and playing, shaping shots, looking at holes, strategizing how to play them, things started coming back quickly,” Woods said Tuesday morning. “Lo and behold, here we are.”

It has been two years since Woods, still No. 5 in the official world golf rankings, played at the tournament sponsored by his charitable foundation. He admitted Tuesday that had this week’s event not fallen under the umbrella of the Tiger Woods Foundation, he would not be participating.

SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Tiger Woods a sympathetic figure after surgery?

Yet Woods was far enough along in the process to make it feasible for him to return this week, giving him a tune-up for the British Open in mid-July. And while he echoed a fact he made clear in the statement he made Friday announcing his return — that he would likely be rusty — he didn’t shy away from stating, if not slightly hedging, that his goal remains to win the tournament for the third time in its eight-year history.

“Expectations don’t change,” Woods said. “It’s just that it’s going to be a little bit harder this time.”

Woods, who withdrew from The Honda Classic on March 1 citing a back injury, admitted Tuesday his problems could be traced all the way back to The Barclays last August. It was during the final round of that tournament, on his second shot on the par-5 13th hole, when Woods dropped to his knees in pain.

Somewhat confusingly, those symptoms would subside over time, allowing Woods to return to a competitive schedule. It wasn’t until after the WGC-Cadillac Championship, which ended on March 9, that Woods grew convinced something needed to be done.

The procedure, known as a microdiscectomy, relieved the pressure a herniated disc was placing on Woods‘ spinal cord. Woods said he was told by numerous people that they “got their life back” after having the surgery. He said Tuesday that he is pain-free and that it’s been “probably a good two years” since he’s felt as healthy.

“Pre-procedure, right before I went in, I wasn’t able to function,” Woods said. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I just couldn’t do any normal activities. When I blew out my knee and even had my Achilles problems, I could still do things. I would still be able to function. This was different.”

His recovery, as one would expect, was not typical. Although he was cleared to putt immediately after the procedure, Woods was unable to bend over to retrieve his ball from the cup, so he filled it with sand. Later, with the prospect of walking the course a daunting task — and riding in a cart placing equal stress on his back — he began standing on the back of it.

Sometimes, Woods would be enthused by his progress, and he’d move on to a new phase of his recovery. After putting, he was cleared to chip and pitch, progressively moving his distances back 10 yards at a time. Two weeks ago, he worked in a full round for the first time, and when he made the announcement on Friday he would be in the 120-player field at the Quicken Loans National, he did so with the allusion that a competitive round of golf would be the next stage of his recovery.

“It’s always good having him back in a tournament,” said Justin Rose, who won the event in 2010, when it was known as the AT&T National. “I always felt if you win a tournament and Tiger is in the field, it makes it feel probably that bit more special.”

Jovial, yet insightful, Woods said Tuesday he doesn’t expect any issues this weekend because he’s “going to hit every fairway and every green.” He admitted he still doesn’t feel as explosive as he would like, though his ability to drive the ball hasn’t lapsed much during his time off.

He, and everyone else, will be able to make that judgment beginning Thursday.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” Woods said. “This has been quite a tedious little process, but one where I got to a point where I can play competitive golf again. It’s pretty exciting.”

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