BETHESDA — Tiger Woods had a feeling his first competitive round in more than three months after back surgery was not going to be easy.
It was not his back that gave the 38-year-old Woods trouble in Thursday’s opening round of the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club. It was his hands.
The touch around the greens that has often eluded Woods since he won the last of his 14 major championships six years ago was missing until the final six holes, when three birdies helped him overcome a terrible start to finish with a 3-over par 74.
Still, Woods didn’t make a putt longer than 10 feet, missed several short birdie and par save possibilities, and didn’t chip particularly well. He shot a 4-over 39 on his first nine holes — Congressional’s back nine — and then made consecutive bogeys after the turn.
“Definitely [disappointing] because that’s all I’ve been doing is chipping and putting,” said Woods, who needed 31 putts. “I hit some bad shots. There are bad pitches and those are the the ones I should get up-and-down [from off the green for par] every time.”
Woods attributed the slow start to time missed while rehabing from surgery to relieve a nerve impingement.
“I think the hard part was just getting into the rhythm of playing competitively. You play with your buddies for cash and it’s just not the same,” he said. “It’s not the same as tournament golf, different level. It unfortunately took a while to get the feel for it. You saw the putt I hit on 11 was awful. I left it 10, 12 feet short. My feels were off.”
Though the stretch of birdies toward the end of the round — including two straight on the par-3 seventh and par-4 eighth — could help Woods stay around for the weekend, he finds himself trailing Australian lefthander Greg Chalmers by eight shots.
The return of Woods to the PGA Tour and Congressional, which has hosted several major championships, made the atmosphere surrounding his featured threesome seem more like a U.S. Open than a mid-tier tuneup for the British Open.
By the time Woods, Jason Day of Australia and American phenom Jordan Spieth left the 11th green after playing two holes, all were at 2-over after consecutive bogeys. Day finished with a 2-over 73 and Spieth, who at one point was tied with Woods for last place at 5-over, finished 3-over.
“The way we all started was pretty poorly,” said Day, who has been back for a month after missing time with a thumb injury that eventually could require surgery. “I’m glad I got back to where I am today at the end of the day, and I’ll just slowly try to build on it from there.”
So will Woods, who toward the end of the round finally began resembling the player who has won 79 PGA Tour events. As he has done for years, Woods chose to look at the positives rather than the poor putting and mediocre chipping.
“The score is not really indicative of how I played,” he said. “I made so many little mistakes.”
Asked how his back is feeling, Woods said: “The back’s great. I had no issues at all. No twinges, no nothing. It felt fantastic. That’s one reason why I let go on those tee shots. I hit it pretty hard out there … I drove it great. I felt comfortable. I fixed it [Wednesday], the grip change.”
Woods agreed it was a relief to be back on the tour.
“It really is,” he said. “It’s nice to get back out here playing again. I unfortunately have been in my career on the sidelines enough, so it’s always fun to come back out here and play against these guys.”
Woods attracted a large crowd for his 8:12 a.m. tee time, but fans seemed to disperse as he struggled and the start of the U.S.-Germany World Cup game in Brazil drew closer. Woods, who said earlier this week that he has spent a lot of time watching the World Cup, finished around halftime.
As the tournament’s host whose foundation benefits from drawing big crowds, it would certainly help if Woods made an early run of birdies in Friday’s second round. If he can climb back into contention, Woods would point to what happened on the last six holes Thursday.
“Just as I played, just the more I played, the more comfortable [I got] about shot selections, my sight lines, all different things,” he said. “I’ve been off for a while and I’ve been held back where I just haven’t been able to let it go. Now I’m able to start doing that, try to get my numbers again. That’s always been a challenge.”
Given the way he played for much of Thursday’s round, it still might be.