Tiger Woods' stunning rally with 3 straight birdies caps 'great round' at Riviera in return to tour
Tiger Woods hugs Rory McIlroy after the first round of the Genesis Invitational.
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — The young woman standing at Riviera Country Club’s rope line on Thursday shielded her eyes from the sun and peered into the distance at the three figures standing on the secluded seventh tee box. “Who else is in Rory’s group?" she asked, probably a bit louder than she should have. A few snickers and indignant harumphs followed, and then someone offered quietly, “Tiger.”
She was embarrassed, to be sure, but hardly horrified at the gaffe. Blame it on the glare, or the fact that Tiger Woods wasn’t donning a red shirt, or that he was limping, or that he’d been gone for 844 days from regular PGA Tour competition. Golf moves on, and Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler are now the outlines that people recognize just as well from a distance.
We’ve got to ease our way back into the notion that Woods still has the competitive drive to show up out here.
In the first round of the Genesis Invitational that Woods hosts, at high noon, the 47-year-old was the last of his threesome to make the short walk from the putting green to the first tee. Justin Thomas arrived, followed by McIlroy, and if the cheers and chants for Woods were hearty, they were hardly much louder.
It was a lively and big crowd gathered in front of the iconic clubhouse and lined the first hole, but it wasn’t the zoo that some might have expected. And after his tee shot with a fairway wood found the right rough and Woods gingerly made his way down the steep wooden steps, the gallery thinned.
Tiger Woods reacts after making birdie on the 18th green during the first round of the Genesis Invitational.
There was a buzz, to be sure, as Woods made his way around the historic layout, but nothing that came close to rivaling his heyday. Even when Woods made a third straight birdie at the 18th hole to shoot a hard-fought two-under-par 69—five shots more than leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell—Riviera’s grassy amphitheater was only about half full.
Now, this was a Thursday in the big city after all. If come Sunday Woods is anywhere near contention in pursuit of record tour win No. 83, Dodgers-in-the-World-Series pandemonium may ensue.
For now, being tied for 27th place (with a couple of groups still to finish Round 1) is an extremely promising return for the man who hadn’t played a competitive round since bidding a Friday farewell while missing the cut in last July’s Open Championship at St. Andrews.
Woods joined McIlroy and Thomas as the trio birdied the easy, par-5 first hole, but he made only one birdie against three bogeys over the next 14 holes. Then, when we might expect him to be tired and sore, Woods rallied by rolling in birdies of five feet at the par-3 16th, 23 feet at the par-5 17th and seven feet at the famous uphill par-4 finisher.
It was a jolly threesome that walked off the 18th, because Thomas, who shot 68, chipped in for birdie and McIlroy (67) drained a five-footer for birdie. They exchanged hugs and hand slaps like they’d won the Riviera member-guest.
“Ebbs and flows,” Woods concluded afterward. “It was nice that I had this unbelievable pairing—two great guys, two great friends. The people were obviously very supportive; they were just cheering all of us on, which is great. [It] just made this whole tournament better.
“I happened to actually hit some good shots finally and made a couple putts. … It was a nice finish.”
For those looking for encouragement from this outing, beyond the closing birdie barrage, Woods’ gait looked better than it did when he played, riding in a cart, in The Match in December and then again at the PNC Championship with son, Charlie. But he still slightly dragged his right leg due to the ankle that was damaged in his car accident two years ago, as well as the plantar fasciitis that he’s contended with more recently.
At the par-3 fourth, where the group had to wait several minutes, Woods sat on a cooler with Thomas and untied his right shoe to give his foot some breathing room. On a couple of holes on the back nine, he pulled off the shoe completely to make an adjustment.
Tiger Woods adjusts his right shoe on the 12th hole during the first round of the Genesis Invitational.
“My ankle's a lot smaller than it has been,” Woods explained. “So, I've had so many surgeries that the ankle just keeps changing, the leg keeps changing. Yes, the shoes keep changing, the socks keep changing. Everything's a moving target. How much I'm on my feet, how much I'm not, how active I am, how not active, the muscles that are on, they're off.”
In the scoring room afterward, Woods said McIlroy announced that he needed to go practice with his driver. “Right behind you,” Woods joked, knowing full well that he would be heading back to his hotel room for extensive icing treatment to prep for his 7:24 a.m. round on Friday.
Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas laugh as they leave the ninth tee.
There were some light moments that showed Woods had probably tempered his expectations, despite contending that he only enters tournaments if he believes he can win. Sitting on the cooler at No. 4, a story Tiger and Thomas, close friends now, shared brought JT to laughing tears.
The two had a similar moment walking off the ninth after Woods striped his drive straight down the middle past Thomas, and their exchange was funny enough that Woods leaned heavily on Thomas as they laughed.
Tiger producing a stirring closing stretch was fantastic. Seeing him enjoy the day with his buddies after all this time away might have been better.
“It was a great round,” Woods said of the camaraderie more than the score. “The ebb and flow of needling each other, encouraging each other and telling stories. Because I hadn't been out here, so I've missed some of the things that have transpired on tour, which is kind of fun.”