As expected, large galleries turned out at Los Angeles’ Riviera Country Club to watch the cream of the PGA Tour compete in the opening round of the Genesis Invitational, and it was the 12:04 tee time that attracted the lion’s share.
Making his first regular PGA Tour start since late 2020, tournament host Tiger Woods was alongside Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, and exactly how the 15-time major champion’s leg and ankle stood up to the hills of Riviera was guaranteed to be one of the major talking points.
Despite the heavy limp that we’ve become used to seeing, Woods looked in decent shape. Rusty, yes, and that was to be expected with a near eight-month layoff, but the signs were promising. As we’ve seen, however, the litmus test will come in later rounds.
And Tiger’s latest comeback began with a birdie-four at the opening hole, albeit the easiest on the course, but a tasty 40-yard chip to three feet was just what the doctor ordered and pars at two and three saw him settling into the round nicely. A slightly chunky chip and pushed 10-footer at the difficult par 3 fourth cost him his first dropped shot of the day, but a gorgeously flighted wedge to a yard at the seventh got him back into red figures.
Still -1 on the tee at the short par 4 10th hole, he caught the bunker short of the green, got a little steep on his escape, then hammered his chip shot through the green into the back bunker, eventually holing a sliding eight-footer for bogey.
Another bogey came on the 12th, this time caused by pushed tee and approach shots, and the round was in danger of slipping away.
Pars on 13, 14 and 15 steadied the ship somewhat, and a finessed 7-iron into the par 3 16th set up a five-foot birdie putt that he drained to move back to level-par.
At the 17th – the final par 5 on the course, A good drive and a slightly overhit approach left Woods a difficult cross-green chip to the back-left pin, but the gallery erupted when he sank the hard-breaking 24-foot putt to get back into red figures.
There was still time for one more though, after again outdriving McIlroy and Thomas, Woods carved a beauty in from 150 yards to just inside eight feet. Adrenaline flowing, there was little sign of the limp as he approached the green side-by-side with McIlroy to a standing ovation, and there were shades of the Tiger of old as he nailed the putt centre-cut, turning a potential 73 or 74 into a 69 with three birdies on the spin.
Speaking after the round, Tiger was asked about the cheeky smile after the putt on 18 and the laughs shared with McIlroy and Thomas. “Well, I think it’s the group,” he said, “JT hoops one in there and Rory’s been beating us all day. 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.”
Admitting he was a little sore after the round, Woods laid out his preparation plans for round two. “Well, there’s a lot of ice going on here. 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.”
Despite the additional buzz created with the grouping, McIlroy can’t have had many more uneventful opening nines in his professional career. A two-putt birdie at the first was followed by nine successive pars, his best chance for a second birdie coming at the par 3 sixth hole, where a misread scuppered his chances from 12 feet.
Never fully in control of his ball off the tee, he wasn’t able to attack many pins, but sturdy lag putting and a solid short game ensured that he kept the blemishes off the card. His second birdie of the day came at the par 5 11th when his eagle-chip lipped out leaving a tap in to move to -2.
Things took an upward turn on the 14th hole. Despite misjudging the wind for his tee shot on the 183-yard par 3, he opted to chip from the front apron, and judged the low runner to perfection, finding the bottom of the cup for his third birdie to get to -3.
And there he’d stay until the last, when having watched Thomas hole from 28 feet, and Woods from eight, McIlroy held his nerve on the raucous amphitheatre that is Riviera’s 18th green to sink six-footer of his own to cap off a grandstand finish for the packed gallery and post -4.
“That wasn’t pleasant,” McIlroy said of the putt on the last, “I felt — he holed the one on 17 before me as well and I’m like, not again. Yeah, I certainly didn’t want to be the only one not to make a birdie on 18, so that was a nice putt to hole.”
Uncharacteristically wayward off the tee, McIlroy headed to the range to work on the long game post-round. “I didn’t feel comfortable at all off the tee,” he said “but hit it in the right spots when I needed to and birdied the holes that you should. Birdied 1, birdied 11, got that nice chip-in on 14. Would have been nice to birdie 17, but at the end of the day it’s a solid start.”
Playing two groups behind the undoubted marquee threesome, Shane Lowry’s round began in style as he drained an eagle putt from 35 yards. He gave a shot back at the par 4 seventh, but immediately bounced back with a birdie on eight, and a par at the ninth saw the Offaly man turn at -2.
A pulled tee shot on the driveable tenth hole left him blocked out, and he’d take four more from there to drop back to -1, but again, he’d bounce back on the next. After coming up just shy in two at the par 5 11th, Lowry’s magical short game was on full display as he holed his chip for an eagle to move to three under.
The rollercoaster ride continued with a bogey at the next, this time courtesy of a three-putt from just inside 50 feet, and he dropped another shot on the 15th as his struggles from inside 10 feet continued.
A great up-and-down on 17 got Lowry back to -2, and like Tiger and Rory before him, he gave himself a great chance on the last. Unlike the others though, he failed to convert, but his two-under 69 was a solid start after two missed cuts in succession.
Starting on the more difficult back nine, Seamus Power struggled in the early stages, bogeying his first hole and adding another at the 16th – his seventh – to reach the midway point at +2. His first birdie of the day came on one, and an 18-footer on three was followed by a 25-footer on five to get the Waterford man to the right side of par. A missed five-footer at the par 3 sixth dropped him back to level-par, and he’d par his way home to sign for a 71, good for a tie for 56th.
The early pace was set by local man Max Homa. The 2021 Genesis Invitational champion was out in the early wave and poured in eight birdies with just one bogey to post -7, one ahead of Jon Rahm who matched Homa’s birdie count but dropped an extra shot.
In the later wave, a birdie at the ninth – his last – saw Keith Mitchell join Homa at the top, with Collin Morikawa, Harris English and Matt Kuchar one back of Rahm at -5.
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