(Reuters) – Henrik Stenson turned in a sizzling eight-under 64 to grab the first round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday, while Tiger Woods was back near the top of the leaderboard and on the prowl for a ninth Bay Hill title.
Stenson, who missed the cut at last week’s PGA Tour stop the Valspar Championship, started his round quietly with three pars but then birdied nine of his next 13 holes including five straight from the ninth.
The only blemish on an otherwise polished card was a bogey at the 14th that interrupted a magical run of seven birdies over eight holes before the Swede closed out his round with two pars for a one shot lead over Americans Talor Gooch and Aaron Wise.
“There was no point wasting a few (birdies) when I was heading home (last week),” said Stenson, whose nine birdies are a career best.
“Golf is funny game, my putter wasn’t working at all last week, I actually hit the ball alright through the two rounds I played but just couldn’t get a birdie and had to go do some work on my putting and got that going.”
Lurking two shots farther back at five-under after 67s are a trio of Americans including world number seven Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker and Bryson DeChambeau.
But the man in the spotlight once again was Woods – back at one of his favorite events and near the top of the leaderboard after carding a rock solid four-under 68 to share seventh with compatriot Patrick Reed and South Korean An Byeong-hun.
A record eight-times winner on the Bay Hill layout, the former world number one was in vintage form, mixing six birdies with a single double bogey to put a marker down for a ninth Palmer Invitational title.
“I thought I played well today.” Woods told reporters. “It’s just playing tournament golf, I’ve been away from it for so long.
“When I first game back it was just getting my feel for tournament golf again and I think I have, I feel like I am not really thinking as much around the golf course, it’s more see it, feel it and go.”
After years of battling back woes, Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April, appears to be back close to the form that helped him to 14 major titles.
Picking up where he left he left off last weekend when he finished second at the Valspar, Woods got a cool morning off to a hot start by collecting three birdies on an error-free first nine.
Playing the back nine first, the 42-year-old American’s round stuttered at the par-four third where he took a double bogey after hitting his tee shot out of bounds.
But, playing with supreme confidence, Woods was quickly back on track, picking up his fourth birdie of the day at the par- five fourth to inch his way back up the leaderboard.
That was followed by a birdie at six and another at seven when he rolled in a monster 71-foot putt that brought a roar from the gallery.
Rory McIlroy, who has had a sluggish start on the PGA Tour and missed the cut in two of four starts, had looked poised to feature on the leaderboard until a double bogey at 18 left the Northern Irishman with a 69, five off the pace.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, Editing by Ed Osmond/Nick Mulvenney)