Tiger Woods walked back down the third fairway Thursday at Bay Hill with his 3-wood in hand.
A golf cart soon met him to whisk Woods back to the tee box to replay a shot that had gone out of bounds.
Once seated, Woods pulled down the brim of his cap, hung his head and let loose a four-letter expletive — it was not “golf.”
Much of Woods’ hard work soon would evaporate with a double-bogey 6. But he was not finished yet.
Woods closed with a Tigeresque flourish to card a 4-under 68 during the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Woods sits four shots out of the lead in a tournament he’s won a record eight times but had not played since 2013.
Henrik Stenson, the 2016 Open Championship winner and a Lake Nona resident, shot a 64 and is a stroke ahead of 22-year-old Aaron Wise and 26-year-old Talor Gooch.
Woods’ lowest opening score at Bay Hill since 2009 was played during more challenging morning conditions Thursday. It is the latest sign the 42-year-old’s comeback from back surgery is on the fast track.
Just two months since his return to the PGA Tour, Woods looks ready to bag his 80th win and contend next month at the Masters, where he has become the betting favorite.
“I’m starting to get the feel playing tournament rounds and that just took time,” Woods said. “It took time and patience and playing tournaments. I’m scoring now, so I’m going out there and hitting shots and I’m scoring.
“I don’t have to really think that much and just going out there and doing it.”
With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees, Woods began his round on the 10th hole. He soon was on autopilot en route to an airtight 3-under 33 on his opening nine.
Woods did not have his best stuff coming in on the front side at Bay Hill. But as he did in his hey-day, Woods made the most of it - and then some.
Woods followed a blocked iron shot on the par-5 6th hole with a daring flop shot off a tight lie, over a bunker and to a tucked pin. The shot left him a virtual tap-in from three feet for his fourth birdie on the course’s four par-5s.
“I took a chance and tried to play a spinner and I did, I pulled it off,” Woods said of his chip shot. “It had plenty of sauce on it.”
But the most delicious moment of Woods’ round came a hole later. Another blocked iron on the 204-yard par-3 7th hole barely found the right side of the green, leaving Woods’ 71 feet from the hole.
Woods surveyed the putt, stepped in and drained it. The ball crested a slight ridge before it made a beeline for the hole.
Woods could only smile, while the crowd shouted its approval.
“They’re into it,” Woods said. “It’s been fun. It’s been fun to see and the atmosphere that we have and to be able to play in front of since I’ve come back has been absolutely incredible.”
When Woods arrived to the 10th tee box around 8:20 a.m. Thursday, fans lined the fairway on both sides for at least 150 yards and were five deep around the tee box.
Playing partners Jason Day, a former world No. 1, and world No. 6 Hideki Matsuyama received polite applause before hitting. Up third, Woods received his first roars and yells of “Tiger!” of the day.
Woods ended the nearly five-hour round with one of the loudest receptions, as well as a sense of relief.
After he found the second bunker of the right side of the par-4 ninth hole, Woods blasted his bunker shot aggressively over the pin, leaving him 11 feet for par.
Woods calmly drained the putt to finish on a high note.
“I don’t think anyone like ending with a bogey,” he said.
Woods recorded six birdies and a double-bogey that could have derailed his round. Instead, it produced some vintage Tiger on a Thursday, when the API crowds were as large and energy level as high as during Woods’ prime.
Woods, back at Bay Hill after four back surgeries and five years away, could not help but soak in all of it.
“I was struggling there for a number of years there and it was a very difficult life to live,” he said. “Now on this side, I’m just very thankful to be here.”