He hadn’t so much as taken a practice swing when he grabbed a wedge and stood on the 10th tee at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, not a cloud in the sky on a crisp Monday morning. For a man who has had his every move scrutinized since he was a teenager, here was Tiger Woods, asked to hit a golf ball over a pond and onto a green, the pin 102 yards away, a few dozen eyes upon him.
He took the club back, made a pass through the ball, stood straight as he stared it down, allowed the club to slide through his hands — and watched the ball splash.
“Oh, that was stiff,” he said. “Ugh.”
He put down another ball, and into the drink it went. A third: Off the bank, and in again.
That was enough for Woods on Monday, when he appeared at Congressional to remind people that his tournament, the Quicken Loans National, will go off here next month whether he plays in it or not. He also provided the latest opportunity to assign meaning to events that may or may not warrant such weight.
Three wedges in the water? That means he’s done, right?
“I get that asked a lot, where [people say], ‘It’s great seeing you. I thought you were dead,’ ” Woods said. “ ‘No, I’m right here in front of you.’ People have written me off . . . I’m not fertilizer. As far as my golf, I’m progressing. I’m getting better. Just give it a little time.”
Time, along with his brittle body, has become Woods’s chief adversary. He is 40, and he underwent a third procedure on his back in October. He has not played competitively since August, when he tied for 10th at something called the Wyndham Championship. It was amazingly what amounts to progress for him now, because he hadn’t posted such a lofty finish since December 2013. In his past 20 events worldwide, he has missed six cuts and withdrawn three times. His world ranking: 524th, just behind Daan Huizing of the Netherlands but still ahead of Jack Senior of England.
So here we are, watching three wedge shots find the bottom of a pond and wondering again: When will Woods play again? And what level can he achieve when he does?
“If I knew, I’d tell you, because it’d be fun to know,” Woods said at a news conference that preceded the ceremonial chunks . . . er, shots. “It’d be nice to know that I am going to play on such-and-such a date. But I don’t know.”
Parse each and every word. He is getting stronger, he said, but lacks endurance. “I need to be able to go out there and play and recover each and every day,” he said.
Monday’s appearance seemed like just an extension of Woods’ career pause that, in some ways, is approaching a decade and has no foreseeable end. The most recent of his 14 major championships came at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he was still infallible, beating the field and Rocco Mediate on a shredded knee and a broken leg. Last year, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, then at the British Open, then at the PGA Championship.
Even when he has teed it up, he can barely compete. Yet every time he sticks his head out into public, after a thorough medical exam from the assembled media, he is asked about Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.
“I think his major championship record is certainly still attainable,” he said. “I got him on the regular ones already. But the major one, that’s certainly up there.”
He turned to Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour victories, a mark he trails by three.
“I’m No. 2 on both lists,” he said. “It’d be nice to end up at 1 on both lists.”
Call it defiant or delusional or some combination of the two. In an interview in a board room upstairs in Congressional’s mammoth clubhouse, Woods said such debates were, for a time, secondary because the nerve problems in his back were so acute, he contemplated giving up the game.
“It’s brutal,” he said. “Do I want to go through that whole process again, of getting back? Some part of me said yes. Some part of me said no, because it is hard.”
Last month, he played five holes in public to mark the opening of the back nine of Bluejack National, the club outside Houston he designed. He said he hasn’t played 18 consecutive holes at Medalist Golf Club, the course he calls home, just up U.S. 1 from his Jupiter Island, Fla., house.
“I just don’t have the patience,” Woods said, and he laughed.
This doesn’t sound like a guy ready to tee it up at Oakmont next month at the U.S. Open.
So where does this leave a golfing public who wants more definitive answers than Woods can — or cares to — deliver? This will be the 10th year of his event here, one that effectively saved PGA Tour golf in Washington. Walking to the Congressional parking lot later, I asked Woods whether he could envision, when his career is over, returning to Congressional — in the vein of Nicklaus at the Memorial or Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill — as host of the tournament that benefits his foundation, a ceremonial sideshow sitting in a comfy chair, remembering better days gone by.
“Mmmmm-hmmmm,” he said, lips pursed. “Yep.”
Really? How and why?
“Ask me that question later this year,” he said. “I’ll have a different answer.”
“You’ll see,” he said, and he smiled.
So assign meaning to that: You’ll see. We don’t know when he’ll play competitive golf again. He doesn’t know when he’ll play competitive golf again. But we know he has considered how he’ll handle his post-playing days — which, if we take anything from three wedge shots into the water, are easier to imagine all the time.