Tiger Woods shot a three-under-par 69 in his first tournament in 10 months.
A double rainbow poked through the clouds as Tiger Woods played the last hole of his first competitive round in 301 days. The iridescent arcs of color in the drizzly sunshine were lost on Woods, who was grinding to stay within reach of the leaders at the Hero World Challenge. He walked in an eight-foot par putt for the finishing touch on a three-under 69 in the first round.
Woods, the tournament host, stood three strokes off the lead, held by Tommy Fleetwood of England. His start left him with multiple reasons to believe that the rainbows, which were fading by the time he walked off the 18th green at Albany Golf Club, might be an omen.
Unlike last year at this event, when he was coming back from a 15-month layoff, Woods did not slow down like a windup toy as the round wore on. In 2016, Woods played the final nine holes in 40 to card a 73. On Thursday, he covered the same ground in 34 strokes.
His swing did not look quite as fluid as it did during this week’s practice rounds, when he did not have extra adrenaline coursing through his body. But Woods’s club head speed was impressive, and he outdrove his playing competitor, Justin Thomas, the reigning FedEx Cup champion and one of the Tour’s longer hitters, more than once.
Perhaps most auspiciously, Woods exhibited no signs of physical discomfort. The only time he winced was when a putt did not fall or an approach shot missed the green. Woods said he felt no fatigue or discomfort.
“It was not only nice to get the first round out of the way, but also I’m only three shots out of the lead,” he said.
Woods may have tempered his expectations at the start of the week, but not anymore. Asked if he believes he can win this event, which includes eight of the top 10 players in the world rankings, Woods replied, “Yes.”
Thomas, ranked No. 3, had said before the round, his first being paired with Woods in competition, that he looked forward to trying to beat him. To which Woods had puckishly retorted: “There’s nothing wrong with that. It goes both ways.”
Thomas, 24, who won his last tournament, in South Korea in October, matched Woods’s 69 and then talked about how rusty he felt after a layoff of only five weeks. “So I can’t imagine what it felt like for him,” Thomas said, adding, “He made some great putts and some great saves.”
Woods, whose last PGA Tour victory came in 2013, had spinal fusion surgery in April and was cleared to hit full shots less than two months ago. The previous two times he returned to competition after back procedures, his chipping was cause for alarm.
He hit two poor shots from around the green on the front nine Thursday to awaken his chipping goblins. He saved par on the fourth hole with a 15-foot putt. But on the ninth, he walked off the green with a bogey six after being just off the green in two.
Woods said he was determined not to let the round slip away on the back nine. He birdied No. 10 to show that despite his rust, his resolve was in midseason form.
It was only one round, but given where he was two months ago, Woods had reason to feel optimistic. At the Presidents Cup, which ended Oct. 1, Woods said he could not be sure he would return to competition. At that point, he had not yet been cleared to hit full shots.
The 79-time Tour winner served as an assistant captain for the victorious United States team. At the awards ceremony, fans serenaded Woods with chants of “Thank you, Tiger.” It was as if the crowd wanted to let him know, in case he needed confirmation, that his place in the game was secure regardless of what his future held.
At the time, Woods described the gesture as “awfully nice.” After a year that included a fourth back surgery, an arrest and rehab for the misuse of prescription drugs, Woods said he was grateful to be back on the course, where he feels the most comfortable.
Before he teed off Thursday, he said he was mentally thanking those who helped him come back. “There were a lot of people that were instrumental in my life: friends; outside people I’ve never met before; obviously my surgeon,” Woods said. “There have been a lot of people.”
The spectators who turned out for the first round seemed appreciative to have another chance to behold Woods, whose 14 major titles are second only to Jack Nicklaus’s 18. There was no mistaking that the marquee performer was the lowest-ranked player in the field. As Woods, who is outside the top 1,000, and Thomas were beginning their rounds, Kevin Chappell arrived at the fourth tee at two-under. He had one person following him.
“It was a little weird,” he said.
Chappell was paired with Charley Hoffman, whose caddie, Brett Waldman, was surprised they had any gallery at all.
“We know who the story is this week,” he said.