ORLANDO – The Tiger Woods Comeback Tour continues to roll along with no hitches.
Woods got going early Thursday and recovered from a double bogey in the middle of his round to fire an opening 4-under 68 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That was good enough to finish one off the lead through the morning wave of Round 1 at Bay Hill.
In fact, Woods would be in a share of the top spot had Jimmy Walker not holed out for eagle at the par-4 18th to close out a 5-under 67.
But it’s Woods, who ended his round in classic fashion by draining an 11-foot par putt, that continues to be the story. The 42-year-old has steadily improved in his comeback but accelerated it last week when he contended to the end at the Valspar Championship before finishing in a tie for second.
This week, he arrived at a venue where he’s won eight times. And it looks like he’s intent on making it nine. It would also be his first PGA Tour win in five years and 80th overall.
Of course, there are still 54 holes to go. But if that victory is going to happen, well Woods is at least off to a strong start on grounds that have often been friendly.
Woods began his round on No. 10, but by the 14th green he had a good look for the solo lead. He got his day going by draining a 10-footer for birdie at the par-5 12th and following by rolling in an 18-footer from the fringe for birdie at the par-4 13th.
The back-to-back birdies had him tied for the lead at 2 under. He lasered an iron into the par-3 14th and left himself 10 feet for the solo lead. The birdie putt failed to drop, though.
No matter. Woods birdied the par-5 16th to move to 3 under, and became the solo leader while playing the par-4 18th after a Patrick Reed double bogey. Woods eventually parred to co-lead after nine holes with a 3-under 33.
Then he came into some trouble.
He made a stellar pair of up and downs at Nos. 1 and 2 to stay 3 under, but Woods almost killed his round at the par-4 third.
The 14-time major champion was often wild with the driver and 3-wood on Thursday, and that bit him when his 3-wood off No. 3 tee went way right and landed his ball barely out of bounds.
The errant shot led to a double bogey and pushed Woods back to 1 under.
But this man does not get fazed often. He hit it just over the green in two at the par-5 fourth, chipped to 4 feet and drained the putt for a bounce-back birdie. An incredibly deft pitch from 34 yards at the par-5 sixth left him 3 feet for birdie. He dropped that no problem to move back to 3 under and into a tie for the lead.
And then came his coup de grace.
Woods was on the fringe and 71 feet from the hole for his birdie putt at the par-3 seventh. If he could, improbably, drain the putt, Woods would have the outright lead at 4 under.
And he did just that.
An amazing moment and roar.
Woods would par the par-4 eighth and then drop out of the lead when Walker holed out. That 11-footer he buried at the par-4 ninth kept him within one by round’s end and prevented a final-hole letdown.
Again, this is only Day One. But for the second straight week, it appears Woods will be contending for a victory.
He held the lead outright multiple times Thursday and came back from a demoralizing double bogey with three birdies in his next four.
Honestly, it didn’t even seem like Woods played that well.
As we noted, he was erratic off the tee with the driver and 3-wood. When he drove with irons, he did just fine. But the other clubs off the tee could use a lot of work (Woods hit 8 of 14 fairways on the day).
His approach play was mostly solid, but he did have a few loose shots there. And he wasn’t that close on his approaches for much of the day.
But Woods’ short game is unimpeachable. His putter was rock-solid all day and on fire for stretches. The only putt of note he missed was that early 10-footer. Otherwise, he holed every key stroke and threw in a 71-footer. His strokes gained: putting for the day will come in somewhere around +1.25.
And his work around the greens is just pristine. He hit 11/18 greens in regulation. One of those of course was the hole where he pumped his tee shot out of bounds. And two of his missed greens were ones where he putted from the fringe. So on his four real opportunities to save par from off the green, he hit it to tap-in range twice, got a third inside 6 feet and the other to 11 feet.
He made all four par putts.
Woods also had an eagle chip he got within four feet and that miraculous eagle pitch to about 3 feet. On the day, he birdied all four par 5s – his performance on those holes had been lacking a bit in his comeback.
No, he’s not leading right now. But on a day when Woods was installed as the Masters favorite, he certainly showed a lot of proof why.
The Comeback Tour is not slowing down.