DUBLIN, Ohio — Playing his first hole on the PGA Tour in 151 days, Tiger Woods on Thursday smashed a driver 327 yards off the tee, hit his approach shot from 145 yards to within 10 feet and then sank a curling, downhill birdie putt.
He walked off the green with a bemused expression that seemed to say: What? This is supposed to be hard?
Two holes later, he was at it again, knocking a wedge shot from 107 yards that landed on a devilishly contoured green and stopped 13 inches from the hole for another birdie. Woods’s comeback after a five-month layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic was about 45 minutes old and he was two under par.
The rest of the day was not quite a romp to the top of the leaderboard at the Memorial Tournament, where Woods is a five-time champion. But by any measure it was still a success, especially since Woods looked fit and his swing relaxed and fluid. He finished the day at the Muirfield Village Golf Club with a one-under-par 71, good enough to tie him for 18th, five strokes behind the first-round leader Tony Finau.
“It’s been a while,” Woods said with a grin afterward. “I felt the same eagerness, edginess, nervy-ness. And it was good. I was a little bit rusty, but overall it was a good start.”
It was also Woods’s first round in the fan-free environment the PGA Tour has implemented since it resumed play on June 11 after a 90-day suspension.
At times, he appeared almost preoccupied by the paucity of distractions in elite golf’s new setting. Playing in the noiselessness of a Hollywood sound studio, where a cacophony of chirping birds would drown out the sound of crisply struck iron shots, Woods frequently searched the empty hillsides next to fairways as if longing for the galleries he normally attracts.
When nine people jammed onto the back porch of a home next to the eighth fairway rowdily called out to him, he paused his stride long enough to wave with his left hand overhead and smile. Occasionally, he made eye contact with the roughly two dozen tour officials, volunteers and media that followed him, which was highly unusual — but never as a professional had such a small gaggle of people accompanied him on a round.
“It’s a different feel,” Woods conceded. “But a new reality.”
Still, renowned for his steely determination, Woods insisted he never lost his fundamental focus.
“I didn’t have any issues with energy or not having fans’ reactions out there,” he said, adding that he even enjoyed the less chaotic walks between holes since the lack of spectators meant golfers could take the most direct routes from greens to tees.
“Usually, I’m meandering roundabout,” he said with a laugh.
Woods had four birdies and three bogeys Thursday, fitting for a day that had an uneven character throughout. He striped drives into the middle of the fairway but flubbed chips and squandered multiple makable birdie opportunities that were often set up by spectacular iron play. But Woods’s return to the tour was more about assessing his fitness level and the overall health of his game than assigning a score for consistency.
By that measure, Woods’s 18 holes should be entirely encouraging to his legion of fans. His swing was compact, unhurried and powerful. He loped around the steep and undulating terrain without any of the ungainly, awkward strides so evident during his last tournament in mid-February when he finished last among the golfers who made the cut and later blamed stiffness in his surgically reconstructed back. Woods’s iron play sparkled, and he ranked eighth in Thursday’s field in shots gained from approach shots to the green.
The vast majority of Woods’s setbacks were on or near the greens. After his two birdies on the first three holes, Woods did not have another birdie until the par-5 15th hole when he nearly holed his third shot from 109 yards away but instead left it four inches from the cup. But on the next hole, a par-3, Woods bladed a sand wedge from a greenside bunker that soared over the green and he scrambled to make bogey. He missed a 22-foot putt for birdie on the 17th hole after a fabulous recovery from a fairway bunker then stroked a deft approach shot to the 18th hole and sank a twisting 14-foot birdie to close his round.
Ascending the knoll that surrounds the final green with a broad smile, Woods looked happy to be back. He was asked if he expected any difficulty playing and walking 18 holes for a second consecutive day.
“No,” Woods said emphatically, and with haste. “I’ve gotten ready for this.”