ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods is exactly where many observers thought he would be after the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational: on the leaderboard although not on top.
Woods, an eight-time winner of this event, shot 4-under 68 at Bay Hill Club on Thursday and sat tied for seventh, four strokes behind Henrik Stenson. PGA Tour rookies Aaron Wise and Talor Gooch shared second at 65. Jimmy Walker, Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau were tied at 67 (scores).
After strong showings at the other Florida Swing events – a co-runner-up last week at the Valspar Championship after a 12th-place finish two weeks earlier at the Honda Classic – Woods quickly is putting any health concerns to rest. He missed almost all of 2017 because of back issues, which required disk-fusion surgery. He is showing signs of the form that produced 79 Tour victories, including 14 major championships.
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Tiger Woods turns back the clock at Bay Hill.
“It's not painful; just tight,” Woods said of his back. “With the fusion, unfortunately I've lost rotation down there, so I need to keep everything as loose as possible. I'm not worrying about pain or being sore or anything. I just try and keep my mobility, especially when it's colder.”
With an 8:23 a.m. tee time off the 10th tee amid temperatures in the high 40s, Woods warmed up quickly with three birdies in his first seven holes. He gave back two strokes after driving out of bounds to the right at the par-4 third hole but bounced back quickly with three birdies in his next four holes, capped by a 71-footer at the par-3 seventh.
The OB ball was Woods’ only mistake on a day that otherwise resembled the vintage efforts that produced victories here in 2000-03, 2008-09 and 2012-13.
“I'm starting to get the feel playing tournament rounds, and that just took time,” said Woods, who posted a fifth consecutive round under par. “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.”
Although Woods stands No. 149 in the Official World Golf Ranking and No. 43 in FedEx Cup points, his success during the past two months looks like a hockey-stick trajectory: straight up. With three more rounds on a course where he has built a large part of his legend, what could go wrong?
Simply put, the competition is stronger.
Major champions Stenson and Walker have won on golf’s biggest stages, and Fowler is a crowd favorite second perhaps only to Woods. Some of the game’s brightest stars, past and present, also were on the leaderboard.
Nothing will come easily for Woods as the Tour’s depth surpasses those turn-of-the-century days when Woods roamed the fairways almost unabated.
The Woods of old created this challenge, and now we will see whether he can overcome it.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli