Tiger Woods grabbed a share of fourth place after the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday with a three-under par 69 in his first PGA tournament round since an injury scare.
The 14-time major winner, chasing the all-time record of 18 major wins by Jack Nicklaus, pulled out of the World Golf Championships event at Doral two weeks ago in the final round with a tightness in his left Achilles tendon.
After a week of treatment with what was diagnosed as a strain, Woods played the two-day Tavistock Cup exhibition, a practice round on Wednesday and his opening 18 holes at Bay Hill with no health problems.
That’s a good sign for Woods in his final tune-up event before the Masters, the year’s first major championship, tees off in two weeks.
“I’m feeling good,” Woods said. “Everything is good. No swelling. If I can just keep it that way, everything will be great.”
South Korean Charlie Wi and American Jason Dufner were the first-day leaders after each shot a 66, two strokes ahead of American Nick Watney with Woods among a host of players three adrift at the $6 million event.
“I controlled the ball really well. I was able to make some putts,” Wi said. “To shoot 66 is a very pleasant surprise.”
Woods is a six-time winner at Bay Hill but has not won any tour-sanctioned event since November of 2009, just before the eruption of his infamous sex scandal, although he did win the World Challenge charity event last December.
Woods can feel the difference in his tee shots after spending much of last year nursing injuries.
“I’m in a position where I can hit it again. That’s something that has been missing for a while,” Woods said. “I feel that I can go ahead and hit that shot if called for and it’s a nice little safety shot to have.”
Woods, who began off the 10th tee, birdied the par-5 12th and had back-to-back birdies at the par-4 15th and par-5 16th before taking his lone bogey of the day at 16.
He answered with a final birdie at the par-5 sixth but lamented two three-putt greens, one of them when he missed for eagle and birdie, that might have put him even closer on the leaders’ heels.
“I didn’t really do anything great. I was just solid all day,” Woods said. “I drove the ball well, hit my irons decent and putted all right.
“I took something off most of my drives. I didn’t really feel great with my tee shots but I was getting the ball in play. Ball is flying forever. Normal drives go about 310 (yards). It was kind of nice.”
Wi is not qualified for the Masters but would if he could win the $1.08 million top prize.
“If I could give myself a chance to do it on Sunday I would be very happy,” Wi said.
Wi birdied the par-5 fourth and sixth holes and added another at the par-3 seventh before taking his lone bogey. He opened and closed the back nine with birdies with two more at the par-3 14th and par-5 16th sandwiched between.
Dufner had five birdies, a lone bogey to close the front nine and an eagle at the 16th to match Wi atop the leaderboard.
“I was able to get some putts to fall in today. Hopefully that will continue,” Dufner said. “I’ve been playing some really nice golf the last month or so.”
Joining Woods on 69 were England’s Justin Rose, South Korea’s K.J. Choi and Americans Bubba Watson, Anthony Kim, Sean O’Hair and Jimmy Walker.