ORLANDO (Florida) • The pronouncement pierced the silence as soon as Tiger Woods made an 11-foot par putt to secure his third consecutive sub-70 round in competition, a four-under 68 at Bay Hill on Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"Tiger Woods - back!" came the cry from a fan near the ninth green.
Woods, fresh off a tie for second at the Valspar Championship, was making his first start in this tournament since he won for the eighth time here in 2013.
His 68 on Thursday left him tied for seventh alongside fellow American Patrick Reed and South Korean An Byeong Hun, four shots behind the leader, Henrik Stenson.
This time last year, "Woods - back" was shorthand for a different narrative. He was a little more than a month away from having lower lumbar fusion surgery.
His brush with mortality softened his hard-line approach to tournament golf. Not once in the first five starts of this comeback has Woods publicly stated that winning was his goal.
He has been the one preaching patience and trying to play down expectations while everyone around him gets carried away.
REDISCOVERING HIS MOJO
I've got my tournament feels now... That was only going to come with time and with patience and just playing golf tournaments.
TIGER WOODS, addressing his current form and his opening round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
When someone noted on Thursday that the 42-year-old had become the betting favourite this week and also for next month's Masters, the men's first Major of the year, he said with a smile: "A lot of gamble-holics out there."
Yet on days like Thursday, when he birdied all four par-five holes and drained an uphill, downhill, curling 71-foot putt for birdie on his third-to-last hole, it is tempting to pronounce that he is nearly back to being the same as he ever was.
It was the first time, following five PGA Tour starts since surgery, that he made birdies in all par-fives in a single round. In his previous 14 competitive rounds, he birdied 16 of 46 par-five holes.
In six of his eight career victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has led the field for par-five scoring, reported the PGA Tour.
Thursday also marked his first bogey-free nine-hole performance this season. He played his first nine holes in three under - his best score to par through nine holes at this event since 2007.
WOODS' BAY HILL OPENER IN NUMBERS
Birdies at all four par-fives. In six of his eight Bay Hill titles, he led the par-five scoring.
His bogeyless streak ended at the par-four third, his 12th hole of the day.
Longest putt (in feet) made on the par-three seventh, and he needed just 25 putts in all.
Greens in regulation (11 of 18).
"I've got my tournament feels now, which is nice," said Woods, who played just two competitive rounds last year.
"That was only going to come with time and with patience and just playing golf tournaments."
The one blemish on his scorecard was a double bogey at the par-four third. Until those dropped shots, he had played a stretch of 25 holes without a bogey.
Stenson, who missed the cut at last week's Valspar Championship, mixed nine birdies with a bogey. Americans Talor Gooch and Aaron Wise are one shot behind.
Four-time Major winner 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.
ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL
Day 3: StarHub Ch204, tomorrow, 12.30am