Tiger Woods restores the roars at Bay Hill with opening-round 68

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 15: Tiger Woods reacts to his birdie putt on the seventh hole during the first round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented By MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 15, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tiger Woods restores the roars at Bay Hill with opening-round 68

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods restores the roars at Bay Hill with opening-round 68

 

ORLANDO – Graeme McDowell was standing on the sixth green Thursday when he heard that familiar sound again. 

The joyous eruptions only Tiger Woods can elicit were absent from the PGA Tour for years and life moved on.

Everything was fine, but it wasn’t like this.

This is so good you can’t look away, even for a minute, or you might miss things like Woods’ 71-foot birdie putt he hammered into the cup at No. 7 to move into a tie for the then lead at 4 under in Round 1 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Woods came to Bay Hill this week after a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship near Tampa Bay. The roars followed and he’s back near the top of the leaderboard and, dear Lord Byron Nelson, this is really happening again. 

“It’s great to have him back,” McDowell said. “The only negative might be that we might not be as good as we thought we were, because he’s taken four years off and he comes out and he’s beating our asses again.”

Woods shot 4-under 68 Thursday and made an 11-footer to save par on nine, his final hole of the day. He made six birdies for the first time since Round 1 of the 2015 Wyndham Championship and birdied every par 5, and when he walked off the course he was just one shot back of leader Jimmy Walker.

“I feel like I’m not really thinking as much around the golf course,” Woods said. “I can just see and feel it and go, and that’s just because I’ve got my feels back again.”

That’s something he talked about Tuesday on the second floor of the Bay Hill Club. Woods isn’t working with a swing coach anymore, and he’s going back to some of the earliest lessons he received from his dad, Earl, who died in 2006.

“As I did last week, as my dad always told me, just putt to the picture,” Woods said of his putt at seven. “I was asking for it to bite as it came over that knob. It was little too hot and it had to crash in the hole.”

Woods’ only blemish of the day came at the par-4 third hole, where he hit his 3-wood way right of the fairway. Once Woods got to his ball near a netted area, he knew things were about to get dicey.

“We got a ruling coming in,” Woods shouted to Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama, their go-ahead to play on while he sorted everything out.

A rules official showed up at 11:29 a.m., about three hours after Woods began his round and about the exact time it looked like the wheels might start to fall off. He was clearly displeased when his ball was ruled to be out of bounds. He ripped a club out of his bag in a motion familiar to any golfer who has ever been frustrated with anything on the golf course and headed back to the tee to hit a provisional. Woods’ second tee shot was right of the fairway as well but playable. He muscled it out of the rough to the right side of the green and two-putted from 26 feet for a double bogey.

Now 1-under for the round through 12, Woods pulled driver at the par-5 fourth hole and did what he always used to do after a blowup hole. He took out his anger on a 295-yard drive to the left side of the fairway, then hit a 278-yard 3-wood just over the green and made an easy birdie.

“He puts it right past him. Never an issue,” caddie Joe LaCava said of the double bogey. “He’s moving on. He’s hot at the time, but he’s moving on. He knows how to get rid of that stuff.”

His good stuff might not be quite as good as it was in his prime, but it’s still better than most. And for all the physical advantages Woods had back then, the biggest might have been between his ears.

“He’s just picked up where he left off,” said McDowell, who shot 3-under 69 playing in the group behind Woods. “It speaks volumes about, not even the physicality but where the guy can go mentally. That’s kind of the bit that’s always been very hard to fathom for the average player. He goes to a place mentally that we just can’t get to and it’s pretty special.”

Woods added birdies at six and seven to cap the round. The hope among Bay Hill fans was that he would build on last week’s T-2 finish and make another run in a tournament he’s won eight times, and he’s already delivering.

His fan support is so strong that Woods, the 149th-ranked golfer in the world, was the new Masters favorite at 8-1 when golfodds.com released new lines Thursday morning. World No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson and reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas are 9-1. The books have to protect themselves given the amount of cash that will continue to pour in on Woods, who likely won’t play again before the Masters.

The hype and excitement will be out of control once Woods finally returns to Augusta National, but the lead-in at Bay Hill is setting up another weekend renaissance. Watch your fair share of college hoops, for sure, but don’t take your eyes off Woods for long.

This is too good to miss.

“I got three more days here,” said Woods, to whom the idea of missing the cut from this position is unfathomable. “Hopefully (I’ll) cap it off with a nice win.”

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