ORLANDO – Installed, as he played his front nine, as the 8-1 favorite to win the Masters next month, Tiger Woods exhibited a potpourri of strokes during Thursday’s opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational to validate the odds-makers’ growing confidence in him.
And he executed one shot in particular that should worry the field at Augusta National Golf Club.
Returning for the first time in five years to a venue where he has won eight of his 79 PGA Tour titles, Woods responded to one of his few truly poor shots, a wayward drive out of bounds on the third hole (his 12th) that led to a double bogey, with three birdies in the next four holes to post a four-under-par 68, one shot behind 2016 PGA champion Jimmy Walker among early starters.
Later in the day, the likes of Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson passed Woods, too, as perfect scoring conditions yielded a spate of red numbers.
Walker, still battling the effects of Lyme Disease, dunked a wedge from 132 yards for an eagle at the par-4 18th hole on the Championship Course at Bay Hill Club, but few patrons witnessed the stroke that sent him to an opening 67. Bay Hill was alive with the sound of the latest Tiger frenzy as fans stood five, six deep on every hole to track the progress of the Comeback Carnivore.
“I’m starting to get the feel playing tournament rounds, and that just took time,” said Woods, who completed just his 15th round this year—not as much time as he seems to be suggesting. “It took time and patience and playing tournaments. I’m scoring now, so I’m going out there and hitting shots, and I’m scoring. I know where to miss it, I don’t have to really think that much and just going out there and doing it.”
Only four times in 17 previous appearances at Bay Hill has Woods submitted a lower opening-round score than he did on a chilly but sunny Thursday morning. It could have been more stellar had he not pumped that drive far right on the par-4 third hole. The ball ended up in the netting of a fence and ruled out of bounds. He had to return to the tee, blocked another to the right, and eventually sank a 4-footer for a double-bogey 6.
He responded with birdies at the par-5 fourth and sixth holes—he, in fact, birdied all four par 5s on Thursday, the first time he's done that in a PGA Tour event since the 2015 Players Championship—and then Woods instigated the loudest roar of the day when he sank a 71-foot putt for birdie on the par-3 seventh. He laughed when the putt dropped, very much like he laughed when he holed out on several occasions on the way to his 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines, the last of his 14 major titles.
He capped the day with an 11-foot par save on the ninth.
“I don’t like making bogeys, period. That was a nice save,” said Woods, who last competed here in 2013 and left with a victory.
Speaking of uh-oh, the shot of the day was not the long putt, but the pitch shot that set up his birdie on the sixth after he flared an iron short and right of the green. He blamed the ugly second shot on mud on his ball. For his third, the pin was cut tight behind the front bunker. From a tight lie, Woods flipped a spinner from 34 yards that left him a simple 3-footer.
“I pulled off a pretty sweet pitch there. That one felt good,” he admitted.
It was sweet because it took guile and execution and nerve. It took everything he had and just about everything he had been lacking before this latest comeback.
This is not yet the Masters, but if there’s a question whether he can handle the difficult chips and pitches around Augusta National, he provided an early glimpse of what the answer could be.
Uh-oh, boys. Uh-oh.