Impressive Tiger shows some of his old magic
Tiger Woods showed he's far from finished as a competitor when he returned to action after a 301-day absence and opened with a three-under-par 69 in the $3.5m Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
The only pain he felt was caused by a couple of poor chip shots and some clumsy putts in what was still a hugely encouraging return to action for the 41-year-old, 14-time Major champion, just eight months after undergoing back surgery.
Yes, it's just a friendly, season-ending invitational. But his five-birdie, two-bogey round left him just three shots behind leader Tommy Fleetwood, the recently crowned European number one, who posted a bogey-free, six-under-par 66 to lead by a shot from Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.
"For me, I thought I did great," said Woods, who is tied for eighth in the 18-man field. "I hadn't played in a while after some of the difficulties I have been through. So to come out here and score like I did - it was nice to tee it up and go out there with a scorecard again."
Having downplayed expectations in the build-up, he admitted he had no idea how he would play but was clearly pleased to finish the day just a stroke behind Kevin Chappell, Justin Rose, world No 1 Dustin Johnson and No 2 Jordan Spieth.
"I didn't know what I could do. I'd been playing golf and I'd played a lot of golf at home but it's a little different when you've got to tee it up in a tournament," said Woods, who matched playing partner Justin Thomas, the US PGA and FedEx Cup champion.
"I had a lot of adrenaline going there and I was hitting the ball a little bit longer than I normally do. So I had to dial it back a little bit. Those are the internal struggles that I just haven't been through as a player in a while."
He started with two solid pars, then he hit a bullet two-iron from 265 yards to the heart of the par-five third and two-putted for birdie from 40 feet.
"I just put this thing on a rope," Woods beamed in his post-round chat with Golf Channel. "That felt good."
He followed that with a trademark fist pump at the fourth where he made a 15-footer from the fringe for par after following an indifferent second with what he described as "a terrible chip" - the first of two he fluffed.
Course designer Ernie Els pointed out during television coverage that "feel" is the biggest challenge facing a player who has been away for so long.
"He's obviously healthy, looking great, very athletic," Els said. "And his swing looks great and the intensity is there too. So I see a lot of positives."
"I'd just love to see him, even at half of what he was, against some of these youngsters," Els added.
Woods showed that physically, he is not far behind the new breed of big-hitting young guns when he blasted a 340-yard drive down the seventh.
Still, there are still question marks over his chipping, a reminder of the yips that appeared to afflict him around the greens in his earlier comebacks.
After rolling in a 25-footer for birdie at the 216-yard eighth to move to two-under-par, he left himself a delicate eagle chip from just short of the green at the par-five ninth but chunked it horribly before three-putting for a bogey six.
His one-under-par outward nine was still an impressive effort, but Woods was less than satisfied. While he punched seven-iron to 10 feet at the 10th and made the putt to go two-under par, his short-game fragility showed at the par-five 11th. Faced with a nerve-jangling third over a yawning bunker, he erred on the side of caution and flew his pitch well past the flag and was forced to make a 10-footer for par after overhitting his long-range birdie putt.
He made amends with back-to-back birdies, rolling in a 20-footer at the 13th before tapping in at the 14th to go four-under for the day, He was just a shot off the lead but hit a wild drive well right into the jungle at the par-five 15th and made another bogey six after being forced to take a penalty drop.
Meanwhile, at the Final Stage of the LPGA Tour Qualifying School in Florida, Jordanstown's Stephanie Meadow bounced back from an opening 78 with a two-under 70 on the Hills Course at LPGA International. The former Curtis Cup star was tied for 70th on four-over-par with only 70 players qualifying for the fifth and final round in the 90-hole race for 20 LPGA Tour cards.
- Hero World Challenge, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 5.30pm