BETHESDA — — Tiger Woods has long been known for wearing red and black on Sunday, his wardrobe of choice for nearly all of his 79 victories on the PGA Tour.
When the 38-year-old tees off Thursday for the first time in a tour event in more than three months, Woods and the rest of the field will be thinking about how much rust he will be wearing.
The atmosphere for his practice round Wednesday at Congressional Country Club during the pro-am for the Quicken Loans National was reminiscent of when he played here in the 1997 U.S. Open a couple of months after winning the Masters by a dozen shots.
Though there were not as many fans, the media seemed nearly as interested. In this case, reporters were analyzing his swing and watching to see if he showed any lingering effects from back surgery to alleviate a nerve impingement.
Asked how his back felt after Wednesday's round, Woods said, "Generally, it feels good. I hit some loose shots today, but I also hit some really good ones. Back feels great, which is a really good sign."
As for his overall game, Woods was blunt.
"A little bit rusty," he said.
The loose shots, particularly off the tee, allowed Woods to test his back in Congressional's thick rough. But Woods hit it close on a few holes, even giving a Wounded Warrior the honor of putting one of his birdie chances.
"That was cool," Woods said of using Master Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Russell to putt on the 17th hole. "He's been here a couple of times as an honorary starter. Put it this way, he'll get your attention, which is great."
Woods has accomplished the same thing among his fellow pros with his return to competitive golf. How much they continue to pay attention depends on his score.
"We have all heard people say, 'What do you think he's going to do?" said defending champion Bill Haas. "I would expect nothing other than a good score from him. I don't know why. Just that's who he is and what he does."
Woods said Tuesday that he would likely have waited until next month's British Open at Royal Liverpool — where he won in 2006 — but decided to play at Congressional because the event contributes significantly to his foundation.
Four-time major champion Ernie Els might know better than anybody what Woods is going through, having endured two major knee operations in the past decade. It took Els nearly three years to win again after his first operation in 2005.
"I've adjusted my game," said Els, 44, who won the 1997 U.S. Open for his second major win and the 2012 British Open for his fourth. "I've had to change my swing a little bit. We are professionals and we can adapt."
Woods acknowledged Tuesday that it was "going to be a little bit harder" to win in his first tournament back than it might have been a few years ago. Joe LaCava, who has caddied for Woods the past three years, said Woods is playing to win.
"He's never going to change his expectations no matter what he's doing, whether it's a six-month layoff or a two-day layoff," LaCava said. "He's here to win and that's his goal, but 'let's be realistic about it.' That's what his approach is."
LaCava spent much of his caddying career working for Fred Couples, who has had back problems for many years.
"If your elbow is hurting or your wrist is hurting or your knee is hurting, it seems like you can get through that," LaCava said. "But your back [is different], there's just something about it."
LaCava can tell a difference when Woods is at a tournament.
"Everyone's excited; golf needs him," LaCava said Wednesday. "No offense to anyone, these guys are all great players and great people, but it's just not the same."
Said Haas, "Once we are on the course, unless you're in a group with him, you don't know that he's hitting it. But just like other times he's come back from a minor injury or something, we're all excited to see him here playing."
Jason Day will see what it is like to have Woods back firsthand; the 26-year-old Australian is playing with Woods and rising American star Jordan Spieth in the tournament's featured group the first two rounds.
"Obviously, it's fun to be here," Day said. "As soon as Tiger leaves, everybody else leaves, too."
First-year tournament director Mike Antolini is hoping Woods is around for the weekend. Nearly 200,000 fans showed up at Congressional when Woods won what was then the AT&T National in 2009, about 50,000 more than last year when he sat out with an injury.
"There's really an elevated excitement in all aspects of the event when Tiger's here," Antolini said Wednesday. "It's no secret; he moves the needle. It's just a different event when he is in it."
Said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who attended Wednesday's opening ceremonies, "People love to watch Tiger Woods play golf. He's the greatest player a lot of them have ever seen play. When he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots [at Pebble Beach in 2000], nobody left the television even though it was over."
Finchem is quick to point out that Woods has been gone for three months, not three years, and is coming off a season in which he won five tournaments before his back began to deteriorate.
What would be even better than having Woods back would be having him in contention on the weekend, Finchem said.
Justin Rose of England, who won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, looks forward to the chance to go head-to-head with Woods, now ranked fifth in the world, down the stretch.
"I always felt if you win a tournament and Tiger is in the field, it makes it feel probably that bit more special," Rose said.