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Tiger Woods, near the top of the leaderboard again, thrills fans (and opponents)


    Tiger Woods reacts after missing a putt for birdie on the 18th green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament today in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. >> 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 4-under-par 68 at Bay Hill today 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 today left him tied for seventh, four shots behind the leader, Henrik Stenson.

At 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, which he starkly described last week as “the only option” he had left, a “last-case resort” that would leave him in “uncharted territory.”

When the PGA Tour’s wraparound season began anew in October, Woods had not been cleared by his doctors to take full shots with all the clubs in his bag. He was not certain he would compete again, much less contend.

Woods’ 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. It was a marked change from his previous comeback attempts, when Woods said that if he was playing, he was playing to win, a mantra he repeated even on weeks when he grimaced from pain afterward as he stiffly walked away.

This time, Woods has been the one preaching patience and trying to tamp down expectations while everyone around him gets carried away. When someone noted today that Woods had become the betting favorite this week and also for next month’s Masters, the men’s first major, he said with a smile, “A lot of gamble-holics out there.”

On days like this, when Woods birdied every par-5 and drained an uphill, downhill, curling 71-foot putt for birdie on his third-to-last hole, it’s tempting to pronounce that he is nearly back to being the same as he ever was. But the number he is fixated on now is neither his 79 PGA Tour victories nor his 14 major championships. It is the four back surgeries that he has endured since a five-victory season in 2013.

“I enjoy just playing again after what I’ve been through,” Woods, 42, said.

Woods, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama were the fifth grouping off the 10th tee and played the first nine in an unseasonal chill. The conditions provided another test for Woods, who said: “My hands are cold. My body doesn’t really want to do this because it’s cold, but just push through it and then as soon as I get to that tee the competitive juices start flying.”

The temperature had warmed considerably by the time Paul Goydos began play as part of the first afternoon threesome off No. 10. After his first seven holes, Goydos was briefly tied with Woods, one stroke off the early lead held by Jimmy Walker. Goydos has 11 more years and seven fewer Arnold Palmer Invitational titles than Woods, whose quick return to championship form Goydos had all but predicted in November.

Speaking at the Champions Tour playoff finale in Phoenix, when Woods was in the first phase of his full-range practices, Goydos said: “We’ve forgotten how good Tiger was, and that kind of bothers him a little bit. He is still, you know, got to be the strongest competitor out there.

“No one’s going to unseat his ability to do what he did on the golf course, what he can do mentally and how he can grind through stuff. He was the best at that. That doesn’t go away with a back injury. I think if he can be healthy, I do think he’s mentally strong enough to be competitive.”

Goydos, who finished with a 70 today, said he had made a gentleman’s bet with Corey Pavin, a fellow Champions Tour player, before last week’s final round outside Tampa, Florida, picking Woods to win and giving Pavin the field. And he said he would gladly make the same bet this Sunday. “Tiger’s really comfortable here,” Goydos said.

The Bay Hill course is a roller-coaster ride for golfers, offering plenty of potential spills and thrills, as Justin Rose showed by covering his first six holes in 4-over and his next 12 in 7-under. Rose played in a group that included Patrick Reed, who was 3-under through seven holes, even-par through 10 and tied with Woods at 4-under after 18.

“I love being on top when Tiger’s around,” Reed said. The electricity that courses through the crowds when Woods is playing well, he added, “just seems to kind of elevate, and for some reason it just kind of gets me going.”

Reed, a five-time tour winner, said he would love to be paired with Woods in a late group Sunday. “I can wear red and black again,” he said, alluding to his long-standing sartorial choice to copy Woods’ final-round colors, “and then we’ll just kind of have a battle to see who plays best.”

In November, Goydos was thinking of Reed, 27, when he said he hoped that the younger players would get a chance to square off against Woods at his competitive best.

“Patrick Reed would not be wearing a red shirt if Tiger were healthy because he wouldn’t win a tournament,” he said then. “Tiger was that intimidating. He was tough.”

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