Tiger opens strong at Bay Hill in key Masters tuneup


Miami (AFP)

Tiger Woods sank six birdie putts, including a spectacular 71-footer at the par-3 seventh hole, and leaped into second place with an opening four-under-par 68 Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The 14-time major champion, among the early starters on a Bay Hill layout where he has won seven times before, showed the peak form that sparked his best finish in five years last week and none of the back pain that sidelined him most of the past two seasons.

The only reason Woods was not sharing the clubhouse lead in his final tuneup for the Masters in three weeks was Jimmy Walker, the 2016 PGA Championship winner.

Walker holed out from 132 yards for eagle on the 18th fairway to complete an opening 67, one stroke ahead of fellow Americans Woods and Patrick Reed.

But the electricity of the day came from Woods, the 42-year-old superstar who has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and hasn't captured any title since the 2013 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.

Woods, who also won his eighth Bay Hill crown in 2013, birdied all four par-5 holes and played the rest of the round at level par, two birdies undone by one bad tee shot and a double-bogey disaster.

Woods, whose 79 career PGA titles are three shy of Sam Snead's career record, began on the back nine and sank a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-5 12th. He followed with a 17-foot birdie putt at the par-4 13th and dropped in a six-footer for birdie at the par-5 16th.

At the par-3 second, Woods found a bunker but blasted out inches from the cup to save par but stumbled on his next swing, blasting his tee shot way right on the third hole on his way to a double bogey six.

But Woods responded with birdies on three of the next four holes, sinking a four-footer at the par-5 fourth and a three-footer at the par-5 sixth to set the stage for his greatest putt of them all.

On the far edge of the seventh green, Woods curled the ball to the right and watched it pick up speed and roll into the cup from 71 feet for a magnificent birdie that brought a smile to his face and a raised hand to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd.

But the work wasn't over. At his final hole, the par-4 ninth, Woods found a greenside bunker and blasted out 11 feet past the cup, then sank the clutch par putt to finish hot on Walker's heels.