BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Nobody has fielded more questions about Tiger Woods over his career than Ernie Els, at times to the point that it exasperates him.
Wednesday wasn’t one of those days.
Els hit his tee shot to start his pro-am round at the Quicken Loans National, and without prompting said, “It’s good to have him back, man.”
This from a guy who has finished runner-up to Woods more often than any other player, including three straight tournaments they played in 2000 by a combined 28 shots.
Then again, the Big Easy has known Woods longer than any other player. They were together in the clubhouse at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1996 when Woods sought his advice on whether to turn pro. Els understands what he brings to the game.
“This will get interesting now,” Els said before heading down the fairway. “He’s got records he’s chasing. I saw him from a distance and his swing looks good. I wish I were playing with him so I can see where he is.”
That’s a question that won’t be answered until Thursday, when Woods returns after a three-month hiatus from back pain and caused him to have surgery March 31. His opening round at Congressional will be his first competition in 109 days, and Woods really hasn’t been competitive this year in the four tournaments he played.
He started Wednesday with a pro-am round that was not inspiring except that he showed no indication of pain or any other physical setback. He started by hitting a tee shot on the par-3 10th hole off the bank and into the water. His drive off the 11th hole went right into the hazard.
But it was just a pro-am round, which doesn’t mean much. Woods once had beautiful control of his golf ball during a practice round Wednesday at Winged Foot during the 2006 U.S. Open, and he went on to miss the cut for the first time in a major.
“I hit some loose shots today, but I also hit some really good ones,” Woods said. “Back feels great, which is a really good sign.”
And he had plenty of occasions to gouge the ball out of rough that is thicker than usual for Congressional, including a 5-wood on the par-4 17th that came out low and hot and ran up to the green, stopping 4 feet past the hole.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Russell was chosen to be the military caddie on that hole, and Woods asked him to knock in the birdie putt. It might have been easier except for one small problem.
“I’m left-handed,” said Russell, who retires after 28
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