(Reuters) – Tiger Woods is back and so are the galleries as the 14-times major winner sent a jolt of excitement through the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday, carding a four-under 68 that had the crowd around Bay Hill Golf Club buzzing.
After a long absence from the game as he dealt with back issues, Woods’s comeback and return to form have energized golf in ways not seen since he dominated the sport.
Tigermania was back at Bay Hill as Woods climbed to the top of the early first-round leaderboard when he rolled in a monster 71-foot birdie putt on the seventh to spark a massive roar from the crowd.
“They (the fans) are into it, it’s been fun,” Woods told reporters. “The atmosphere we’ve been able to play in front of since I’ve come back has been absolutely incredible.
“It feels great the people are so supportive. It has been great atmosphere overall since I’ve come back and started playing again.”
Picking up where he left he left off on Sunday with a second place finish at the Valspar Championship, Woods’s play in Thursday opening round continued to indicate his comeback is trending upwards.
Las Vegas bookmakers have been so impressed that they have installed the former world number one as one of the favorites to win next month’s U.S. Masters.
Westgate Las Vegas Superbook golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman dropped Woods’s odds for the Masters from 16/1 to 12/1 after his opening nine holes, tying him for third favorite behind world number one Dustin Johnson and number two Justin Thomas.
But that was just for starters.
By round’s end the odds on Woods to win at Augusta for the fifth time had dropped to 10/1.
After years of battling back problems, Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April, appears to be back close to the form that helped him to win 14 major titles.
Woods, however, took a moment to dampen down the burgeoning expectations, reminding the media and fans that he is only two months into a comeback.
“You guys are asking different questions from when I first came back and it wasn’t that long ago, it was two months ago and the narrative has completely flipped,” Woods said.
“I enjoy just playing again, playing feels good. Just take a different perspective over it is all I’m asking.”
If Woods was to produce some of his old magic, it is hardly surprising it came a Bay Hill where he has won a PGA Tour record equaling eight times.
The 42-year-old American gave his play solid marks but there is still plenty of work to do.
“Everything can be shored up, everything can be a little bit tighter, a little bit better. But everyone says that, I’m not different,” he said.
“I’ve got three more days here and hopefully cap it off with a nice win.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto and Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina. Editing by Ed Osmond)