LOS ANGELES — A day that started with butterflies ended with birdies — three in a row — as Tiger Woods navigated Riviera Country Club on Thursday with a round as crisp as the cool afternoon.
Woods, playing his first competitive round in a non-major in 844 days, shot a two-under-par 69 to the delight of the robust gallery capturing his every move with raised cellphone cameras.
“I didn’t really look up as much,” said Woods, 47. “I probably should have, but I didn’t. I was trying to calm myself down all day, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing out here because I haven’t played. I had to try and figure out what the chess match is going to be.”
This marked the first time since the 2020 Masters that Woods strung three consecutive birdies on tour.
His list of infirmities includes at least five back surgeries, his recovery from a near-fatal rollover accident, and a recent bout with plantar fasciitis. Multiple times in the opening round he had to remove his shoe and adjust his sock, which covered a braced ankle. His limp wasn’t pronounced, but it was there.
“My ankle’s a lot smaller than it has been,” he said. “So I’ve had so many surgeries that the ankle just keeps changing, the leg keeps changing. Yes, the shoes keep changing, the socks keep changing. Everything’s a moving target. How much I’m on my feet, how much I’m not, how active I am, how not active, the muscles that are on, they’re off. It’s a moving target all the time.”
Hitting targets wasn’t a problem for him Thursday, especially at the end of his round. He hit his tee shot on the par-three 16th hole to five feet, then sank the putt. On 17, he drained a putt that was nearly 24 feet, and finished with a putt of 7 1/2 feet, removing his black TW cap and easing into a smile.
Part of the pleasure, Woods said, was playing with his friends, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who likewise had strong rounds. Thomas shot a 68, McIlroy a 67, staying within striking range of co-leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell at 64.
Woods, Thomas and McIlroy all birdied 18.
“JT hoops one in there and Rory’s been beating us all day,” Woods said. “He’s nervous as can be because he didn’t want to be the one to miss on 18. I didn’t want to be the idiot host to miss it right in front of everybody after I just went birdie-birdie.”
This is Woods’ first tournament other than a major since the Zozo Championship at Sherwood Country Club in October 2020. The Genesis benefits his TGR Foundation.
When Woods is playing in a tournament, the course is like a giant shoebox that’s tilted and tapped on one side, virtually the entire gallery gathering wherever he is. McIlroy, who in other situations would be the marquee attraction, happily shrugged off hearing Tiger chants throughout his round. He has long since grown accustomed to that.
“Look, this guy’s literally been golf for the last 25 years,” McIlroy said. “So I’m very happy to take a backseat.”
Woods, who is tied with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour victories with 82, is looking to win at this legendary course for the first time in his storied career. This is his 14th tournament at Riviera, and he has played no other course as many times without a win.
He has a 7:24 a.m. tee time Friday, when it figures to be considerably colder than his 12:04 p.m. start Thursday. And it’s not as if he rolls out of bed and heads for the course. He has a strict regimen that’s even more rigorous to account for his creaky, reconstructed body.
“There’s a lot of ice going on here,” he said. “As soon as I get back to the hotel, it’s just icing and treatment and icing and treatment, just hit repeat throughout the whole night. Get ready, warmed up tomorrow, get this big sweat going on, big lift in the morning and stay warm and get off to a good start on 10.”
This much hasn’t changed: Woods isn’t looking merely to make the cut but to win.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s the only reason why I tee it up.”