BETHESDA, Md. -- Tiger Woods has always enjoyed working on his game away from the PGA Tour. You don't win 79 times without loving competition, but what he relishes most, perhaps, is life inside his inner sanctum of practicing and working out.
Through the years, Tiger has been advised by some to play more tournaments, and he has always said that he was staying sharp in his own way by beating balls and simulating tournament situations in practice.
His strategy has worked.
Were it not for his new tournament sponsor, Quicken Loans, and his eponymous foundation, Tiger would not be in the field this week at Congressional Country Club. He would be home at the Medalist Club in Hobe Sound, Florida, going over his future plans and continuing to strengthen his grip with his swing coach, Sean Foley.
The Tiger we see this week at Congressional, the one figuring it out as he goes, is one we have not seen often for the past 20 years. We know the Tiger in the midst of a swing change or the one battling an injury, but rarely the one just struggling to find his game in front of the world that always expects him to play well.
But here he is in suburban Washington, D.C., digging his game out of the dirt in competition.
Sure, he was rusty and at times sloppy Thursday in his 3-over-par 74 in the first round of the Quicken Loans National that left him tied for 83rd and 8 shots off Greg Chalmers's 18-hole lead. But after 109 days away from competitive golf and now healthy after back surgery in late March, it was time for him to play.
Earlier in the week, Tiger said that through the rehab, all he had done mostly was chip and putt. He thought that part of his game might make up for what he might lack with the timing and rhythm of his full swing. But golf courses set up to give tour players fits with tucked pins and 240-yard par-3s don't go by anyone's practice routine.
"You play with your buddies all day for cash and stuff, but it's just not the same," Woods said Thursday afternoon. "It's not the same as tournament golf. [It's a] different level.
"The adrenaline is rushing, and I hit the ball further out here than I do at home."
On Thursday, Tiger misjudged several delicate, but fairly ordinary shots around the greens that resulted in seven bogeys during his first 12 holes. At the 11th green, his second hole in the first round, Woods left his first putt 10 feet short of the cup. At the third hole, Tiger, by his own admission, hit an "awful" shot into the green. Right in between sand wedge and pitching wedge, he was never committed to the shot and pulled it into the bunker left.
Tiger didn't find the feel that comes from tournaments until midway through his round.
The best thing about his 74 on Thursday might be that it's hopefully a positive step for him toward getting better and sharper for tournament golf.
"It was great to see everyone behind Tiger welcoming him and wishing well," said Jordan Spieth, who played with Woods and also had a 74. "[Tiger] said it was a little different starting out, and he finally found his rhythm, and we saw what happens when [he] found his rhythm there.
"So look for a pretty solid round tomorrow out of him. I wouldn't be surprised if he shoots a few under."
Every golfer who's ever played on the PGA Tour has struggled at some point. And they have all been embarrassed in front of galleries and their peers. They all play through slumps and injuries and missed cuts.
It might not ever get this bad for Tiger, but he has to play through this rust to come out of it to get back to the level that helped him win five times in 2013.
For Woods, practice continues to be the balm that feeds his ravenous work ethic. Yet he should try to play, not only when he is ready to win, but also more when he needs to just work on his game in a real tournament setting.
On Thursday, throngs of Tiger fans yearned to see their hero's greatness bloom. When he finished with birdies on three of his last six holes, they were pleased and their roars were heard all over Congressional Country Club.
And they were noticeably and expectably quiet during his seven bogeys. But those missteps were perhaps the most important moments in Tiger's first round, because they revealed the rust in his game and the necessity for his presence in the tournament.
He might have been struggling to break 80, as he put it, but he was doing the real practice to take his game to possibly a new level in this phase of his career.