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Tiger makes strong start in return from 16-month layoff

Nassau, Bahamas | AFP |

Tiger Woods ignited his long-awaited return from back surgery by reeling off three consecutive birdies for a share of the lead after his first eight holes in Thursday’s opening round of the Hero World Challenge.

Woods, who missed 16 months and fell to 898th in the world rankings, birdied the par-5 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-3 eighth holes at 7,302-yard Albany Golf Club to reach four-under par and match the early lead in the 18-player invitational.

But on the par-5 ninth, the course’s longest hole at 603 yards, Woods sent his tee shot into tall weeds and sand left of the fairway and the 14-time major champion took the first bogey of his comeback, making the turn at three under to share fifth, three back of US pace-setter J.B. Holmes.

“Can’t wait to get back out there and mix it up with the boys,” Woods tweeted two hours before his opening tee shot.

Woods, playing alongside fellow American Patrick Reed in windy conditions, sent his first shot into the left rough, ending his longest career layoff after 466 days.

Woods — clad in black shirt, pants, cap and shoes — blasted his approach onto the green 15 feet from the hole, slid a birdie putt slid two feet past the cup and tapped in for an opening par.

Woods went over a raised green at the par-5 third hole but chipped to 18 inches and tapped in for his first birdie since August 2015.

At the par-4 fourth, Woods found sand left of the fairway and was short of the green but chipped to two feet and parred. At the par-3 fifth, Woods missed a 10-foot birdie bid and settled for par.

Woods blasted his tee shot at the par-5 sixth 320 feet, giving him 275 to the hole. His second shot landed in the rough but he chipped to eight feet and sank the putt.

Revealing a bald spot on the back of his head when removing his cap to wipe sweat, Woods appeared fit and swung with comfort and ease.

Woods sank an eight-foot birdie putt at the par-4 seventh and followed with a two-foot birdie putt at the par-3 eighth to join the leaders before his stumble at nine.

 ‘From there you never know’ 

Woods hosts the tournament on an Ernie Els-designed par-72 course complete with natural Caribbean brush and sand collecting wayward shots from a field that includes six of the world’s top-10 players.

“He’s playing on a course he knows pretty well,” said South Africa’s Els, a four-time major champion. “I think he has a good opportunity to get a score under his belt and from there you never know.”

Excitement had built around the isolated Bahamas billionaire enclave after Woods, whose yacht is among those docked near the course, made two eagles Wednesday in a pro-am round.

Woods, who turns 41 on December 30, had not played competitively since he shared 10th at the PGA Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, in August 2015. It was his best showing since the start of 2014.

He has struggled with knee and leg injuries in recent seasons, playing only 32 competitive rounds last year and just 21 in 2014 after failed comeback bids. At last year’s Challenge, Woods wondered if he might never play again as he battled back pain that faded with time.

Woods, whose 79 career titles are three shy of Sam Snead’s PGA record, has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open and has not won any event since the 2013 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational at Akron, Ohio.

Next April will mark 20 years since Woods won his first major crown at the 1997 Masters, setting a course record at 21 with a dominating display that humbled a world-class field, ignited “Tiger-mania” and helped push revamping and lengthening at Augusta National.

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