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Tiger Woods is back, and so is golf

Tiger Woods waits to hit during a practice

Tiger Woods waits to hit during a practice round for the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club on June 25, 2014 in Bethesda, Md. Credit: Getty

BETHESDA, Md. - Golf is back on Tiger Standard Time. Tiger Woods is about to play his first competitive round Thursday since surgery on March 31 for a pinched nerve in his back, so it merely is a related development that 119 others will be hitting golf balls around the Congressional Country Club course here at the Quicken Loans National.

"As soon as Tiger leaves, everyone else leaves," said Jason Day, the 26-year-old Australian ranked No. 6 in the world and himself recently recovered from a thumb injury.

The hand-wringing over Woods' 31/2-month absence, dropping him to World No. 5, has prompted some among the golf commentariat to lament that the men's game recently has been overshadowed by an 11-year-old girl (Lucy Li) and a former prodigy (Michelle Wie) finally winning a U.S. Women's Open.

But Woods' presence clearly gins up interest in this suburban Washington tournament that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, given that the field is not terribly deep. Besides Woods and Day, 20-year-old Texan Jordan Spieth (No. 9) and Englishman Justin Rose (No. 10) are the only other top 15 players here, as is four-time major-tournament champ Ernie Els of South Africa, now 44 years old and ranked 56th.

"There's always a fascination in terms of watching Tiger play golf, and the run he's been on throughout his career, and what he still has to achieve," Rose said. "I think golf will get really exciting if he starts winning a couple more majors and the race to [Jack Nicklaus' record] 18 becomes incredibly on again."

Woods has been stuck at 14 titles in the Grand Slam events since winning the 2008 U.S. Open, waylaid by a series of injuries and a sabbatical after revelations of marital indiscretions. And he isn't getting any younger at 38.

Still, Woods regulates the golf metabolism.

"He's the lifeline of our tour," said Bill Haas, the Congressional event's defending champion (under a previous sponsor). "I'm not the one that moves the needle here on this tour. So, I think we're all loving having Tiger back here playing.

"We want him to play healthy and we want him to contend in majors . . . the reason everyone gets excited to watch."

Els declared it "so good for the game of golf to have Tiger back. He's in a position unlike any other player currently playing the sport, that he can change history, so that's really important for him and for the game of golf going forward. It's going to be an exciting time for himself and for the fans to see what he can do.

"His body has taken a bit of a toll . . . but there's no stronger guy out here. It's just that other guys are maybe a bit more flexible or just younger. When you're younger, you swing without fear. But Tiger's got the strongest mind out here."

So, hanging on Woods' every move and every word: He announced after his morning practice round Wednesday that his back "feels great, which is a really good sign."

And his grip "got a little bit weak . . . something that we were working on last week."

And he was "a little bit rusty but really managed my way around this golf course."

And Congressional "was playing really long and we'll see how it plays" upon his early tee-off this morning.

8:12 a.m., Tiger Standard Time.

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