MIAMI – Tiger Woods sank six birdie putts, including a spectacular 71-footer at the par-3 seventh hole, and leaped into second place with an opening four-under-par 68 Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The 14-time major champion, among the early starters on a Bay Hill layout where he has won eight times before, showed the peak form that sparked his best finish in five years last week.
“It was just getting a feel for playing tournament golf again and I think I have it,” Woods said.
“I’m not thinking as much around the golf course. I can just see it, feel it and go. That’s because I’ve got my ‘feels’ back.”
Three weeks before the start of the Masters, the year’s first major tournament, Woods showed none of the back pain that sidelined him most of the past two seasons.
He has undergone four back operations, doubting at one stage if he would ever return to competitive golf.
“I enjoy just playing again. After what I’ve been through, just playing feels good,” Woods said.
“It’s not painful. It’s just tight. With the fusion, I’ve just lost rotation down there. I just try to keep everything as loose as possible. Especially when it’s colder.”
Told that Las Vegas odds-makers were making him the Masters favourite based on his past week’s performance, Woods said: “A lot of gamble-holics out there.
“Everything can be shored up a little bit tighter, a little bit better. We have a long way to go. It’s just the first day. I’ve got three days to go, and hopefully I can cap it off with a nice win.”
The only reason Woods did not share the clubhouse lead in his final tune-up for the showdown at Augusta National was Jimmy Walker, the 2016 PGA Championship winner.
Walker holed out from 132 yards for eagle on the 18th fairway to complete an opening 67.
But the electricity of the day came from Woods, the 42-year-old superstar who has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and hasn’t captured any title since the 2013 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods, who also won his eighth Bay Hill crown in 2013, birdied all four par-5 holes and played the rest of the round at level par, two birdies undone by one bad tee shot and a double-bogey disaster.
“People have been so supportive. It has been a great atmosphere overall since I’ve come back and started playing again,” Woods said.
“They are into it. The atmosphere I’ve been able to play in front of has been absolutely incredible.”
Woods, whose 79 career PGA titles are three shy of Sam Snead’s career record, began on the back nine and sank a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-5 12th.
He followed with a 17-foot birdie putt at the par-4 13th, and dropped in a six-footer for birdie at the par-5 16th.
At the par-3 second, Woods found a bunker but blasted out inches from the cup to save par but stumbled on his next swing, sending his tee shot way right and out of bounds by inches on the third hole on his way to a double-bogey six.
But Woods responded with birdies on three of the next four holes, sinking a four-footer at the par-5 fourth and a three-footer at the par-5 sixth.
That set the stage for his greatest putt of all. On the far edge of the seventh green, Woods curled the ball to the right, watched it pick up speed and roll into the cup from 71 feet for a birdie that brought a smile to his face and a raised hand to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers.
“I just wanted to get down in two. I didn’t want to drop another shot,” Woods said. “I’m lucky it hit the hole or it was probably eight feet by.”
But the work wasn’t over.
At his final hole, the par-4 ninth, Woods found a greenside bunker and blasted out 11 feet past the cup, then sank the clutch par putt.