NASSAU, the Bahamas — From the third fairway, Tiger Woods struck a shot with his 5-iron and froze on his follow-through, tracking the ball as he did routinely in his prime. The shot, his second on the 572-yard par 5 at Albany Golf Club on Thursday, was hit almost too flush. Woods had not been sure he had enough club to reach the green, so he was surprised when the ball rolled off the back of it.
He chipped to inside 5 feet and made the putt for the first birdie of his first round in 466 days, easily the longest layoff of his 21-year career.
Woods would later describe the shot as one of his best of the day. It was a signal that his game, after three injury-marred years, was not gone, just buried beneath layers of rust.
“To hit it that flush that early in the round, that felt good and gave me a little confidence,” said Woods, who briefly held a share of the lead early in the first round of the Hero World Challenge, the 18-man unofficial PGA Tour event he hosts.
But after he made the turn in three under par, the breeze picked up, and Woods cooled off. He played the final nine holes in four over, with two double bogeys, a birdie and a bogey, for a one-over 73.
The first-round leader was J. B. Holmes, who carded an eight-under 64. Woods is 17th among the 18 golfers, ahead of only Justin Rose, who shot a 74.
“This golf course’s defense is the wind,” Holmes said, “and when it goes away, you can definitely shoot a good number.”
Woods moved into a tie with Holmes, Louis Oosthuizen and Matt Kuchar after he made his third consecutive birdie, at the par-3 eighth. But on the ninth, a par 5, he hit his drive left of the fairway and stubbed a chip on his way to his first bogey.
On the back nine, he missed three fairways. He found a water hazard with his last drive of the day, struggling home in 40.
“I let a really good round slip away at the end,” said Woods, who blamed what he described as “silly” mental mistakes, not physical fatigue, for his drop in play. “They are mistakes I don’t normally make, but I haven’t played in a while.”
He added, “I can clean that up.”
In Woods’s handpicked pairing was Patrick Reed, who idolized Woods as a child and dresses in the same color scheme — red shirts and black pants — on tournament Sundays. Reed played alongside Woods in the first two rounds the last time he was coming off a lengthy layoff, in Phoenix in 2015, where Woods also carded an opening 73 after being sidelined for six months with back problems.
The next day, Reed had a greenside seat for Woods’s 82, only the second time in his pro career that he had failed to break 80.
Reed, who had his own challenges in his round of 72, said there was no comparing Woods’s play in Phoenix with what he had witnessed Thursday.
“Last time I played with him back at Phoenix, when he got himself in some situations where he had to put a lot of torque on that back, it just looked a little glitchy,” Reed said. “It didn’t look like he could get through them, and today he could — he could fire through everything.”
Reed added: “He’s really close. He was a lot closer than I was today.”
Woods’s good shots were really, really good, Reed said, and his bad shots, well, “they weren’t very good misses.”
“But at the end of the day,” Reed added, “to take as much time as he had and come back and be his first competitive round and to have the kind of spurts that he had throughout the round, it was good to see.”
Woods played the five par 5s in one under, four strokes more than Holmes.
“I didn’t play the par 5s very well in the middle part of the round and consequently got it going the wrong way,” Woods said.
Returning after a 15-month layoff is hard. Jordan Spieth said that after three weeks away, he felt as if he had never swung a club. Asked before the tournament began what his expectations were for Woods, Spieth said: “Hoping for the best, preparing for it taking some time, as I know he is. I think he’s accepted the fact that he’ll be patient.”
The first sign that the old Woods was back came when he walked right by Golf Channel’s Notah Begay, his good friend and former Stanford teammate, without acknowledging him, so fine was his focus as he arrived at the first tee.