If by the 12th hole of the Dogwood Invitational’s first round, Tony Romo would have stepped off to one side of the green for just a moment, cupped his hand over his mouth and quietly cursed football, who would have blamed him?

He seemed to be feeling each one of the 127 games he started at quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Bending over to repair a ball mark was momentarily impossible, so he instead dropped to one knee to tend to the chore. What was a brisk walk around the Druid Hills Golf Club had been downgraded to a measured stroll. On the 13th tee box, he pulled from his golf bag one of those black, rubberized back supports that appliance delivery men wear and wrapped it tight around his midsection.

All of which makes the 2-under 70 he shot Wednesday the more noteworthy.

Returning to the city where four months ago he called New England’s Super Bowl victory for CBS, Romo put together a very sturdy, very steady round of golf. He hit fairways, hit all but a couple of greens in regulation and ended the day six strokes off the lead of this amateur tournament they’ve been playing in Atlanta since the Big Band Era.

So, a former NFL quarterback, an NHL hockey ref and a project manager for a general contractor walk into a country club.

That’s not the start of the world’s least funny joke. Rather, it’s the Dogwood Invitational. It draws all kinds, including this day a threesome made up of the world’s most popular football analyst (Romo), the ref who didn’t get a Stanley Cup assignment but put his spare time to good use (Garrett Rank) and a local construction guy who obviously has some time to work on his short game (Andrew Saft).

Like another, older transplant from the broadcast booth and another sport – John Smoltz – the 39-year-old Romo has turned to golf to feed his competitive appetites. And he seems to be getting better at it, making the progression from vanity golfer to one who needs to be taken seriously.

Rank, the hockey ref and golfer of some repute (he qualified for last year’s U.S. Open) first played with Romo a couple of years ago at the Western Amateur. He noticed something different this time.

“I said to Tony after the round I was really impressed with the strides that he has made over the past two years since we played last,” Rank said. “He has the ability – and I’m not just saying this to be a nice guy – to win this tournament. He hits it a long way, he hits it hard. I was really impressed with his game.”

Because of his celebrity, Romo can draw a handful of sponsors’ exemptions into PGA Tour events. Playing in two thus far this year, he missed the cut at both the Corales Puntacana Resort Championship and the AT&T Byron Nelson. But his scores were trending in the right direction: 79-80 in the Dominican Republic; 76-74 in Dallas.

And, now, visiting the underbelly of par at a course that doesn’t play to PGA Tour dimensions, Romo felt as good about his golf as his aching back would allow.

Asked where he wants to take this golf thing, Romo said, “There is no endgame.”

“I just want to keep improving,” he said. “I have from Puntacana. I got a lot better for the Byron. Some of my weaknesses there, I worked really hard at. Every time I play in one of these, I attack some spot that’s not good enough under tournament conditions.”

This time Romo concentrated on his driving, and he was just about dead solid perfect off the tee.

He keeps this up, Romo is going to be the second most famous golfer with a bad back. And he has discussed this situation with No. 1, Tiger Woods.

“We’ve talked about a lot of that same stuff,” Romo said. “You just constantly have to be on top of it. You can’t just randomly go play a round of golf without warming up and going through your entire routine. Five days a week I’m doing the back stuff at the clinic. It’s part of the lifestyle now.”

A review of his NFL injury history would suggest he was fortunate just to be upright Wednesday: Three broken collarbones; a broken rib and punctured lung; ruptured disk, two transverse process fractures; a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra.

But, no, he’s not going to blame football for any pain on the course now.

“My wife wouldn’t allow that,” he said.

Two back surgeries later, Romo is still testing it, when he could be doing nothing more stressful than watching Cleveland Browns video and preparing for next season in the booth.

He showed up at the Dogwood, and more than providing the tournament a recognizable name, he gave it some pretty stout golf, too.

“Right now, the mindset is to play as much as you can, as many tournaments as you can against good players, and try to improve,” Romo said. Before going back to work talking football, he hopes to play in amateur events in Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Illinois as well as defending his title at the American Century Championship celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe in July.

There could be some very concentrated doses of golf here at Druid Hills. There’s talk of bad weather advancing on the Dogwood and of trying to get in 36 holes Thursday in front of it. That is bad news for a bad back.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Romo said. “I got to do a lot of stuff (on his back) the rest of the night. And if I have (an early) tee time, I’ll be up at 4 o’clock getting started.”

He can thank various Eagles and Redskins and Giants for that.