BETHESDA — Charlie Rymer got away from the Golf Channel studios in Orlando, Fla., last week to go on location for the Quicken Loans National. The former PGA Tour player also left the set here at Congressional Country Club to watch Tiger Woods up close Thursday and Friday.
Unlike many who were discouraged by what they saw from the world's former No. 1 player, Rymer believes the 38-year-old Woods again will be a champion. He was treated almost as a curiosity while missing the cut by four shots in his first event since undergoing back surgery three months ago.
"He's got some good golf left in him, there's no doubt about that," Rymer said Saturday. "Is it going to be 15 years more? No. But if he stays healthy, he's got another 10. I think there are going to be more days when he figures things out, but he's going to miss an occasional cut, too."
Rymer said he initially was surprised to hear Woods would play so soon after his operation to relieve a nerve impingement in his back. In fact, Rymer said he was "prepared not to see Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour this season."
Watching Woods closely on the tee and whenever he was hitting out of the rough — which, with rounds of 3-over-par 74 and 4-over-par 75, was often – Rymer wanted to see whether "there was any loss of [swing] speed or giving in to the pain, any physical issues."
"What I saw was a rusty golfer, but someone who looked healthy to me," Rymer said.
Woods said during his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday that he chose to come back for a tournament he has hosted since 2007 to help the foundation that bears his names. The tournament, formerly the AT&T National, has raised millions of dollars for the Tiger Woods Foundation and its learning centers.
"I think it was probably one of those things that it was [killing] two birds with one stone," Rymer said. "He obviously felt like he needed to play, and at the same time, he knew it would benefit his foundation. I said this on the air the other day: I don't think Tiger gets enough credit for the work he does with the foundation, and this is a big part of it. It showed that the foundation is important to him."
The galleries were noticeably thinner and more spread out for Saturday's third round than they were the first two days, when most of those who came to the tournament seemed to be following the trio of Woods, 20-year-old American phenom Jordan Spieth and Jason Day of Australia.
Tournament director Mike Antolini said Saturday that the "buzz" Woods helped create by entering the field last week was still there, helped by shots like Swede Peter Hanson's hole-in-one on the par-3 second hole that gave one fan a year's worth of mortgage payments, courtesy of Quicken Loans.
"We're really kind of feeling the excitement of the week that is kind of continuing," Antolini said.
Antolini said before the tournament began that he expected "in excess of 130,000 fans" for the week. After drawing about 24,000 announced paid fans Thursday and about 30,000 Friday, it might be difficult to get to that number without Woods. Still, Antolini said: "There's a lot to be excited about, and happy about."
But the feeling of disappointment over Woods' absence here was palpable.
Sawyer Lafever, 11, of Leesburg, Va., who had come to his first PGA Tour event with hopes of following Woods, said it was "very disappointing" that his favorite player had missed the cut.
Lafever's father, Scott, who bought tickets before Woods even had committed to playing, said coming to Congressional on Saturday was more about his son than Woods.
"It was all for him, getting him exposed to the game," Lafever said.
Doug Elznic, a retired Navy veteran from Lorton, Va., said he has long been a fan of Woods because of his ties to the military, which the tournament honors.
Wearing a T-shirt that read "Birdie, Eagle, Tiger" on the back, Elznic said, "I just love Tiger Woods." Asked whether it was tough to watch Woods struggle in the first two rounds, Elznic said: "It was good to see him back. You could see he was really rusty. He just made a lot of simple mistakes" Friday.
But Elznic believes that by the time Woods tees it up for next month's British Open at Royal Liverpool, where he won in 2006, "I think he will be back to his old way."
Elznic said Woods' recent struggles with his health have exposed a vulnerability in an athlete who often seemed to block out any distractions. "You saw that a lot when I was here on Wednesday" for the Pro-Am, Elznic said. "He talked a lot more to the fans. I've never seen that before."
Rymer said he also saw a difference in the way Woods dealt with the media earlier in the week.
"Anytime you got through a medical situation — I've been through a couple myself — you go in and turn yourself over to people that you don't know well, it makes you sort of feel vulnerable," he said. "For someone who's never felt vulnerable, that's a different deal. I think it can change your outlook and your attitude."
Woods said after Friday's round that his back had held up better than he expected.
"The back is in the past," he said. "Like I said, I was more worried about what was going to happen at tournament speed physically. You know I had no setbacks, no pain. I'm sore in other parts of my body. I had not exploded like that in a while. So certain body parts are feeling it. But definitely not my back."
Playing the second half of a tournament without Woods is a rarity on the PGA Tour: Woods failed to make it to the weekend for only the 10th time in his 18-year career.
Considering his age and recent string of injuries, as well as how vital he is to the sport's success, the PGA Tour now looks as vulnerable as Woods.
"All you have to do is look at the ratings this year in the events that Tiger played and the events he didn't play. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what does Tiger does to the ratings," Rymer said. "All you have to do is walk out there and see that he's the guy everyone comes to see.
"At some point, Tiger is going to walk off into the sunset. Phil Mickelson is going to be walking off around the same time. As an industry, you have to feel a little vulnerable. At the same time, golf produced a Tiger Woods, a Phil Mickelson, a Jack Nicklaus. Someone will come along. They always have."