Woods: If not for foundation, I might not play

Tiger Woods during a Tuesday news conference for the PGA Tour's 2014 Quicken Loans National, where he will make his return to play this week after a back injury.

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BETHESDA, Md. – Roughly 50 media members gathered in the media center at Congressional Country Club Tuesday morning, replacing a sea of empty chairs that had filled the room a day before. Two massive TV screens that had shown World Cup soccer a day earlier featured tennis matches from Wimbledon instead. Roger Federer's regal face filled the screens while a ticker along the bottom displayed that LeBron James had opted out of his deal with the Miami Heat, deciding to become a free agent.

Like his two Nike stablemates, Tiger Woods knows what it's like to have one’s face and name splashed across Jumbotrons around the globe. After he announced last week that he would be making his return to competitive golf after surgery and three months off at this week's Quicken Loans National, it became inevitable that his image and name soon would be everywhere.

Early in Woods' career, he said that if he entered a tournament, he expected to win. Asked Tuesday whether that held true this week, he didn't back down.

"Expectations don't change," Woods said. "That's the ultimate goal. It's just going to be a little bit harder this time. I haven't had the amount of practice and reps that I would like, but I'm good enough to play and I'm going to give it a go."

Woods withdrew during the third round of The Honda Classic in early March because of a lingering back injury that had been plaguing him since last autumn.

Woods had microdiscectomy surgery for a pinched nerve in his back March 31 and has missed this season's Masters, Players Championship and U.S. Open.

"Pre-procedure, before I went in, as I explained to you guys, I wasn't able to function," Woods said. "I couldn't get out of bed. I just couldn't do any normal activities. When I blew out my knee (in 2008) and had my Achilles (tendon) problems, I could still do things and I could still function. This was different. Anyone who has had any kind of nerve impingement knows that it's no joke. That part was relieved as soon as I got out of the surgery."

Woods said his recovery has gone so well that he actually is ahead of schedule, having originally planned to make his return at the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool July 17-20. One Las Vegas sports book quickly established Woods’ odds of winning this week at 16-1, and set his odds at the Open Championship and PGA at 7-1.

Woods conceded that if the Tiger Woods Foundation were not involved with this week's event, he likely wouldn't be here.

"As I said, our goal was the British Open," he said. "I healed extremely fast, thanks to my physios and all my nutrition and all the different things that we did and the protocols. The MRIs and all the different steps that we have done along the way have allowed me to get to this point."

Justin Rose, who was in the media center 30 minutes before Woods arrived, said he thinks Woods is using this week's event as preparation for the season's third major.

"He doesn't want to be rusty at the Open Championship," Rose said. "I always feel like there is a slight lag effect. You can have your game on the range, but it always takes a week or two weeks or having a scorecard in your hand for five or six rounds (to get your game back)."

With the pain gone after the surgery, Woods said that he was cleared to start hitting putts right away, with one stipulation: He wasn't allowed to bend over to pick up the balls.

"I had a little creative idea," he said with a smile. "We have normal-size holes in my back yard and I just sand-filled them. I knew whether the ball went in or not, but I never had to bend over to get the balls out of the hole."

The putting progressed to chipping and pitching, and then Woods began hitting full shots, moving 10 yards back every few days. As long as his back felt OK, he could progress to hitting longer shots. Two weeks ago, Woods finally began making full swings with his driver and playing a few holes, he said.

Because sitting in a golf cart is not the best position for his back, Woods would ride at times standing up on the back of a cart.

Woods said that he has not felt this good in at least two years. He seemed very much at ease talking with the media, smiled a lot and made several jokes.

Asked whether he might abstain from trying heroic recovery shots that could re-injure his back, Woods quipped, "I shouldn't have any issue because I'm going to hit every fairway and every green, and I won't have a single problem."

When the laughter abated, he said, "Listening to my body, that's one thing that I have learned, stubbornly, over the years, that I have to do."

In seasons past, the U.S. Open signified the halfway point of the golf season – two majors down, two to go – but due to his injuries, Woods has played in only three PGA Tour events. His best finish was a tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral. He is ranked 209th in the FedEx Cup point standings, behind Fred Couples and Mark Calcavecchia, and will have some ground to make up to move into the top 125 and qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Woods has won the FedEx Cup twice, and probably never has had to think about FedEx Cup points in June. He does now.

"I'm just trying to get in the playoffs, somehow," he said.

The PGA Tour projects that he will need to earn 371 points to qualify for the first playoff event, The Barclays, in late August.

Typically, Woods' midsummer schedule includes only majors and elite-field events after the Quicken Loans National (previously named the AT&T National). Presuming he doesn't re-aggravate his back, Woods is expected to play in the Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship.

Unless Woods decides to add the Wyndham Championship or any other starts that he normally would not make, he would have five events to crack into the top 125 on the FedEx Cup points list to extend his season. If he fails, come late August, Woods will have to explore non-PGA Tour options in Europe or Asia or wait until after the Ryder Cup to play again.

Woods said his explosiveness has yet to return, but he expects it to be back in time. He said his putting is sharp, but he did not have a chance while home in Florida to hit shots from the type of thick Bermuda rough that he will encounter at Congressional. He and swing coach Sean Foley have worked on refining his swing, but the changes are subtle, not major. He expects to be rusty from a competitive standpoint but is not afraid of re-injuring himself.

The simple fact that Tiger Woods chose to come back this week gives the Quicken Loans National a huge boost. Ticket sales spiked immediately after his announcement.

And when Tiger Woods' name and face returns to those Jumbotrons, golf certainly should feel a lot more exciting.

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