ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s just nothing like Tiger magic.
Less than a year after his fourth back surgery and serious questions about his golf future, Tiger Woods looks like he’s 15 years younger and impervious to both pain and an errant tee shot. On Thursday he was pushing many of his longer shots to the right, and yet somehow making up for it with everything from sand saves to 71-foot salvos. He shot 4-under 68 here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, good for one off the lead when he got off the final green. (By day’s end, he was four back of Henrik Stenson, but still very much in contention.) Not bad for a 42-year-old who couldn’t even sit through dinner a matter of months ago.
The climax of his opening round came on the Par-3 7th, when he left himself what seemed like a country mile from the hole and still snaked a birdie putt in from more than 70 feet, grinning when it dropped like the cat who ate the canary. He later said he had too much speed on the putt and feared it would go 10 feet past the hole. Instead it went into the hole, and mirth ensued.
The famous Tiger Roar rolled from the green to the fairway, over the low Florida hills and into the clubhouse area. Everyone knows the sound when Tiger makes a huge putt. There’s nothing like that, either.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 15, 2018
“They were really into it,” Woods said with a smile afterward. That was an understatement. Woods was in a group with Jason Day, a top 10 golfer, and marshals had to consistently reprimand the gallery from lurching toward the next shot immediately after Woods hit. Nevermind that Day is ranked higher and hitting it further. He could have been an amateur from Gainesville for all anyone seemed to care.
Even the low point of the day was delightful to fans watching. Woods careened his tee shot on 3 way right, and the ball went under a fence out of bounds. When he arrived at the ball, he found it wrapped up in the netting between the two posts. One marshal joked that a hometown supporter had tried to push the ball back in play. Either way it was a penalty, and Woods fumed as he stomped back to the tee to hit another. He felt he should have been alerted to play a provisional before he went all the way down to see the damage, but fans loved watching angry Tiger stride by.
He ended up with double bogey, which sent him back to 1-under, but that only woke him up. He birdied 6 with a superb chip over a bunker, and then came the putt on 7 that would be a career highlight for most other pros. For Woods it was just another lag putt like the one he struck at Valspar on Sunday, when he finished second – just one stroke back. That’s how well he’s playing.
As for physical discomfort, it’s hard to see a trace of it. He said he was concerned about tightness in his back on a cold morning here, but he was fine when he began walking from hole to hole.
It’s jarring how the conversation around Woods has changed. After his round, he was asked what he needs to do to get ready for The Masters. That’s a question that would have been preposterous only a couple of weeks ago. “The questions you’re asking have changed,” Woods noted to one reporter, referencing how the bar has risen so quickly. At the beginning of this year, Woods playing any kind of round was a little unexpected. Now, after Thursday, fans (and media) will expect to see the swashbuckling maestro contending for a title here on Sunday.
This is all only several months after Woods’ career became almost an afterthought. When he was pulled over for a DUI near his Jupiter home last spring, even his most ardent fans were willing to give up all hope of him returning to play as long as he was healthy. The chase for Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships meant so little compared to the widespread feeling that Woods needed to be a healthy dad first and foremost. He could have done harm to himself or others on that night. He needed to heal.
It’s not known what mental steps it took for him to return to golf. He still has that edge, and it showed on Thursday when he took a double bogey on 3. But he seems less ferocious, less consumed. He said after the round that he’s “not overthinking too much” on the course. He’s relying on one of his late father’s old sayings, “Putt to the picture,” which means instead of trying to analyze every break and bump in a long putt, just imagine the ball going into the hole and swing accordingly. A word he has used several times this week is “enjoy.” He’s not quite avuncular; more so reflective. He’s happy to be here.
It probably helped to have a gallery that was probably quadruple the size of a regular Day 1 on tour. Woods’ galleries are distinct: it’s not just the dudes in polos and pressed pants; it’s girls with pink streaked hair and college kids in hockey jerseys and little kids.
As he moved to the 15th hole, a walkie talkie at a security post warned an official that “people are trying to sneak into the venue to see Tiger.”
At this rate, the entire population of Central Florida will be trying to sneak in by Sunday.
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