BETHESDA, Md. — Nobody has fielded more questions about Tiger Woods over his career than Ernie Els, at times to the point that it exasperates him.
Wednesday wasn’t one of those days.
Els hit his tee shot to start his pro-am round at the Quicken Loans National, and without prompting said, “It’s good to have him back, man.”
This from a guy who has finished runner-up to Woods more often than any other player, including three straight tournaments they played in 2000 by a combined 28 shots.
Then again, the Big Easy has known Woods longer than any other player. They were together in the clubhouse at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1996 when Woods sought his advice on whether to turn pro. Els understands what he brings to the game.
“This will get interesting now,” Els said before heading down the fairway. “He’s got records he’s chasing. I saw him from a distance and his swing looks good. I wish I were playing with him so I can see where he is.”
That’s a question that won’t be answered until today, when Woods returns after a three-month hiatus from back pain and caused him to have surgery March 31. His opening round at Congressional will be his first competition in 109 days, and Woods really hasn’t been competitive this year in the four tournaments he played.
He started Wednesday with a pro-am round that was not inspiring except that he showed no indication of pain or any other physical setback. He started by hitting a tee shot on the par-3 10th hole off the bank and into the water. His drive off the 11th hole went right into the hazard.
But it was just a pro-am round, which doesn’t mean much. Woods once had beautiful control of his golf ball during a practice round Wednesday at Winged Foot during the 2006 U.S. Open, and he went on to miss the cut for the first time in a major.
“I hit some loose shots today, but I also hit some really good ones,” Woods said. “Back feels great, which is a really good sign.”
And he had plenty of occasions to gouge the ball out of rough that is thicker than usual for Congressional, including a 5-wood on the par-4 17th that came out low and hot and ran up to the green, stopping 4 feet past the hole.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Russell was chosen to be the military caddie on that hole, and Woods asked him to knock in the birdie putt. It might have been easier except for one small problem.
“I’m left-handed,” said Russell, who retires after 28½ years of active duty on Monday.
He missed the putt.
Beyond the shots, the return of Woods was noticeable by the energy at the tournament. Ticket sales more than doubled on Friday when Woods announced he was ready to return to competition, particularly at a tournament that benefits his foundation.
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.”
The 120-man field is stronger than in recent years, and not just because Woods is back.
Jordan Spieth finished sixth last year when he was not even a PGA Tour member. Now he’s No. 9 in the field, among five players from the top 10 at Congressional. He is joined by Jason Day, Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley and Els, who is playing Congressional for the second time since winning the ‘97 U.S. Open here.
All of this makes Els more curious than ever about Woods.
“It’s going to be an exciting time for himself and for the fans to see what he can do,” Els said. “And then we’ve got some great young players coming through, winning big events now ... guys who have won major championships and are really exciting players. You’ve got a guy that’s reaching almost 40 who is ... the best player of his generation, trying to become the best player of all time. So it’s really exciting times.”
The defending champion is Bill Haas, who feels more like an afterthought and doesn’t mind in the least.
“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.”