GAINESVILLE, Va. — The Quicken Loans National is known colloquially as simply “Tiger’s tourney.”
That had a different meaning when it first began, when the player/host was at the top of his sport, a legitimate threat to win said tournament every time he stepped on the course. In fact, he captured the title in both 2009 and 2012, back when the event was still called the AT&T National.
After spending six of the eight years of its existence at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, the Quicken Loans National moves to Robert Trent Jones Golf Club this year. And as play begins Thursday, the shift seems fitting, as the course looks as fundamentally different as the landscape of the game itself between 2007 and today.
Back in ’07, Woods led the PGA Tour in scoring average by a stroke-and-a-half, winning seven of the 16 events he entered, including the PGA Championship. He swept all the major awards for the third consecutive year. At 31, he was not just the best golfer in the world, he was one of the most transcendent athletes in all of sports.
Woods would go on to win the U.S. Open in 2008, the 14th major title of his career, just four shy of the record set by Jack Nicklaus. He hasn’t won one since.
Despite his on- and off-course roller coaster of injuries and incidents, he managed to place in the top five in at least one major per year through 2013. But in the past year-and-a-half, the rest of the game seems to have finally overtaken him. Before 2014, Woods had missed three cuts in majors since 1997.
He’s missed three of the last four.
So while Woods has won his own tournament twice, in 2009 and 2012, both times at Congressional, as he enters play this week it’s reasonable to wonder whether we’ll even see him play the weekend. The younger generation of superstars, the ones that watched Woods rise to glory in his prime, have finally broken through.
“I’m kind of caught right in between, you know?” Woods posited aloud at his news conference Tuesday. “This is the generation that grew up watching me play and win tournaments, and the guys that I used to play practice rounds with are all gone.”
Woods will turn 40 at the end of this year, and has endured multiple surgeries recently, the last of which he has not been able to fully recover from to find his golf game. While he continues to speak positively about his progress, he has just one top 30 finish and three missed cuts in eight tournaments so far.
“I didn’t think it would take this long because I thought I would have my short game earlier, which I didn’t at the very beginning of the year,” he said Tuesday. “You can cover up a lot of different things when you’re chipping and putting well.”
While Woods will still have to contend with the likes of Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, a number of the top players on tour — including Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Open Championship winner Zach Johnson — won’t be in the field. In a sense that should make the goal of a good finish easier. But at the end of the day, if Woods’ game doesn’t fundamentally improve, it’s hard to imagine him ever being competitive on the same level again.
“You’re still playing the golf course, whether you’re playing an elite field or (one a) little more diluted,” he said. I’ve still got to play all 18 holes like any other time.”
The first step is playing 18 well enough Thursday and Friday to be able to stick around for the weekend.