LOS ANGELES (AP) — The walk from the 18th green to the Riviera Golf Club clubhouse is steep. The fans shouting Tiger Woods’ name at the hole’s surrounding grass auditorium appeared to relieve any discomfort the smiling Tiger Woods could have felt in his right ankle.
Despite an injury that still affects the 15-time major champion when he walks, Woods finished his first round of competitive golf in seven months with three birdies on the final three holes to score a 2-under 69 at the Genesis Invitational and make his return to the PGA Tour electrifying.
Woods is five strokes behind of co-leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell.
“I didn’t want to be the dumb host who missed it right in front of everyone after going birdie-birdie,” Woods said of his birdie putt on No. 18. “That was a fantastic round.”
Woods’ pleasure on the 18th hole was the conclusion of not just seven months of waiting and rehabilitating, but also a fitting finale to a round that was everything from easy. Over the span of more than five hours, Woods grinded for crucial pars and recovered from three bogeys to end with a burst of great shots that completely shifted the tone of his round.
On Tuesday, Woods assured reporters that hitting shots was not an issue. Then he went out and proved it on Thursday. Woods was regularly hitting the ball over 320 yards off the tee (three of his drives went more over 330 yards) and outdriving both his playing companions, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, on a few holes.
As Woods stated, the course’s design enabled him to gain greater distance off the tee due to the roll of the ball, however he still had to adapt to the distance he was obtaining solely on adrenaline.
“There’s nothing like the sense of butterflies and trying to settle all that stuff down come game time,” Woods added. “Despite the cold, [the ball] was travelling farther than we had anticipated. All of it has to be dialled back in.”
Considering his physical condition, it was expected that Woods would struggle on the back nine. Although it was true, his performance improved as the round went. Drives were longer, approach strokes were closer, and putts were finally falling. Woods made three consecutive pars after bogeying the 10th and 12th holes before going up to the 16th tee and hitting the shot of the day.
Woods positioned himself on the left side of the tee box and hit a nine iron that faded right and landed pin high, five feet from the cup. The putt slid in on the right side, providing Woods with the energy he needed. Later, on the par-5 17th, he drove it 322 yards and holed a 24-foot putt for birdie. That was enough to get him to do his first fist pump of the day.
It nearly seemed like a formality by the time he came to the 18th green and had just around eight feet for his third consecutive birdie. When the ball sank, there was no fist pump, just an instant acknowledgment to the audience that had been cheering him on since the first tee shot.
“All day I was trying to calm myself down,” Woods said. “I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing out here since I haven’t played in a long time.”
Given his health, Woods’ comeback is positive. During his round, he exhibited a little hitch in his stride as he tried to relieve strain on his right ankle. Woods removed his right shoe many occasions throughout the round to change his ankle brace and sock. As he was waiting to tee off, he would tilt his right foot high to extend it as well.
Woods spent some time after finishing on the 11th green to apply a cream on his lower right back.
“My ankle is much smaller than it used to be. I’ve undergone so many operations that my ankle and leg are constantly altering “Woods said. “Yeah, the shoes and socks are always changing. Everything is on the go. How much I’m on my feet, how much I’m not, how active I am, how inactive I am, and which muscles are on and which are off. It’s always a shifting aim.”
The real test is about to begin. After completing his round at 5 p.m. local time Thursday, Woods will play the second round at 7:24 a.m. Friday, a 14-hour turnaround to prepare his body for another 18 holes in colder conditions. As Woods indicated, the period in between will be filled with ice and therapy to prepare. Meanwhile, McIlroy, his playing companion, has said that he will spend some of that time hitting the driver.
“I’m heading to the range,” McIlroy said. “I don’t like it when he hits it by me.”
Woods said that playing with Thomas and McIlroy, two of his best friends, was a big part of what made the round fun.
“The ebb and flow of needling, encouraging, and sharing anecdotes,” Woods said. “Since I hadn’t been out here, I’ve missed some of the tour’s events, which is sort of enjoyable.”
At different points on Thursday, it was clear that Woods was having a good time being back. It was also evident that the happiness he displayed after the round was related to his doing well and, in his eyes, having a chance to win.
“It’s the sole reason I tee it up,” Woods said.