LOS ANGELES — The walk to the Riviera Country Club clubhouse from the 18th green is a steep one. But any pain Tiger Woods might have felt in his right ankle seemed soothed by the smile that spread across his face as the crowd that filled the hole’s surrounding grass auditorium chanted his name.
Despite an injury that is still bothering the 15-time major winner as he walks, Woods punctuated his first round of competitive golf in seven months with three birdies on the last three holes to shoot a 2-under 69 at the Genesis Invitational and make his return to the PGA Tour an electric one.
Woods is five shots behind co-leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell.
“I didn’t want to be the idiot host to miss it right in front of everybody after I just went birdie-birdie,” Woods said of his birdie putt on No. 18. “It was a great round.”
The joy Woods exuded on the 18th was a culmination of not just seven months of waiting and rehabbing but a fitting end to a round that was anything but easy. Over the course of more than five hours, Woods grinded his way to clutch pars and bounced back from three bogeys only to finish with a flurry of vintage shots that changed the entire tenor of his round.
Woods told reporters on Tuesday that hitting shots was not a problem. And on Thursday, he went out there and proved as much. Off the tee, Woods was routinely hitting the ball over 320 yards (three of his drives went more than 330 yards) and outdriving both his playing partners — Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas — on a few holes.
As Woods explained, the way the course is set up, it allows him to gain more distance off the tee because of the roll the ball gets, though he still had to adjust to the distance he was getting based on adrenaline alone.
“There’s nothing like come game time, just the feeling of the butterflies and trying to calm all that stuff down,” Woods said. “Even though it’s cold out here, [the ball] was going even further than we expected. I had to dial all that back in.”
Given his physical state, there was an expectation that the back nine would be tough for Woods to endure. And while that might have been the case, his game improved as the round progressed. Drives went farther, approach shots were tighter and putts were finally dropping. After making bogeys on the 10th and 12th holes, Woods made three straight pars before stepping up to the 16th tee and hitting the shot of the day.
Woods set up on the left side of the tee box and carved a nine iron that faded right and landed pin high, five feet from the cup. The putt slipped in on the right side and seemed to give Woods the spark he needed. Then, he drove it 322 yards on the par-5 17th and dropped a 24-foot putt for birdie. It was good enough to elicit his first fist pump of the day.
By the time he got to the 18th green and had only about eight feet for this third straight birdie, it almost felt like a formality. There was no fist pump as the ball dropped, just an immediate salute to the crowd that had been cheering him incessantly from the first tee shot.
“I was trying to calm myself down all day,” Woods said. “Trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing out here because I haven’t played.”
Woods’ debut is an encouraging one given where his health appears to be. Throughout the course of his round on Thursday, he still had a slight hitch in his step as he looked to limit the pressure on his right ankle. During a few times in the round, Woods removed his right shoe and adjusted his ankle brace and sock. At other times when he waited to tee off, he tilted his right foot upwards to stretch it as well.
As he wrapped up on the 11th green in the middle of the round, Woods also took some time to apply a cream to his lower right back.
“My ankle’s a lot smaller than it has been. I’ve had so many surgeries that the ankle just keeps changing, the leg keeps changing,” Woods said. “Yes, the shoes keep changing, the socks keep changing. Everything’s a moving target. How much I’m on my feet, how much I’m not, how active I am, how not active, the muscles that are on, they’re off. It’s a moving target all the time.”
Now comes the real test. After finishing up his round Thursday past 5 p.m. local time, Woods is set to play the second round at 7:24 a.m. — a 13-hour turnaround to get his body ready for another 18 holes in colder weather. As Woods explained, the time in between will feature plenty of icing and treatment in order to get ready for tomorrow. Meanwhile, his playing partner McIlroy said he’ll spend some of that time hitting the driver.
“I’m going to work on the range,” McIlroy said. “I don’t like him hitting it by me.”
Woods said so much of what made the round enjoyable was playing alongside Thomas and McIlroy, who are two of his closest friends.
“The ebb and flow of needling each other, encouraging each other and telling stories,” Woods said. “I hadn’t been out here so I’ve missed some of the things that have transpired on Tour, which is kind of fun.”
It was evident, at various moments Thursday, that Woods was having fun being back. It was equally clear, however, that the joy he showed after the round remains tied to him performing well and, in his mind, having a chance to win.
“That’s the only reason why I tee it up,” Woods said.
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