Tiger Woods described his latest comeback as “great” after carding a three-under-par 69 to sit handily placed following the opening round of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
Playing competitively for the first time in 301 days, the 14-time major winner made five birdies at Albany Golf Club as he beat his effort when making a similar return in this event 12 months ago by four shots.
Both his bogeys came at par-5s, one the result of a fluffed chip and the other following a wayward drive that left him having to take a penalty drop from a bush in the waste area.
However, his clubhead speed was impressive, as was his putting stroke, as he ended the day just three shots off the lead, held by new European No 1 Tommy Fleetwood.
“For me, I thought it was great,” said Woods, who underwent spinal fuson surgery in April - his fourth back operation in the space of three years - after withdrawing from his most recent tournament in February in Dubai after an opening 77. “To go out and score like I did was nice. It was fun to be part of a scorecard again.”
Mainly the result of him having just started three events since August 2015, Woods is currently ranked 1,199th and began the week a 40-1 outsider in the 18-man field. However, those odds were quickly trimmed as he got off to an encouraging start.
Making the 10th comeback after an absence of 10 weeks or more of his career, the former world No 1 needed a fortunate bounce to keep his opening tee shot on the fairway before pitching to 12 feet and narrowly missing the birdie attempt.
A birdie chance from similar range went begging on the par-3 second, but Woods moved into red figures in style on the par-5 third, drilling a 2-iron from 260 yards on to the green and two-putting from 45 feet.
In the first sign of any rustiness, he duffed a chip from short of the fourth green, but the 41-year-old holed from 15 feet for par and celebrated with a trademark fist-pump. “That was nice to make to keep the momentum going,” he admitted afterwards.
Three more pars followed before Woods holed from 25 feet for birdie on the eighth, although another duffed chip on the par-5 ninth led to a first bogey of the day after reaching the edge of the green in two.
He bounced back superbly from that disappointing end to the front nine, though, with birdies on the 10th, 13th and 14th, before a wild tee shot on the next led to that penalty drop and a second bogey of the day.
He was unable to convert a decent birdie opportunity set up by a brilliant approach from the waste area at the 16th, before producing a good chip to save par at the 17th and then confidently knocking in a testing four-footer to do likewise at the last.
“I did not know what I could do,” admitted Woods. “I have been playing a lot of holes [at home] but it’s different teeing up in a tournament. I had a lot of adrenaline going and was hitting it a little longer than normal. I had to dial it back a bit. Those are the internal struggles I’ve not been through in a while.”
The performance impressed leading coach Denis Pugh. “That was an eight to nine out of 10 performance from Tiger today,” he said on Sky Sports. “The greatest player of his generation has come back at an age when comebacks aren’t normal.”
Fleetwood, who is making his debut in the event before getting married in the Bahmas on Tuesday, was bogey-free as he took a one-shot lead over American duo Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar. World No 1 Dustin Johnson and Open champion Jordan Spieth are two behind along with Justin Rose and Kevin Chappell.