ORLANDO, Fla. >> Tiger Woods was out-of-bounds by inches and holed a 70-foot birdie putt, and he was only part of the entertainment today at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Former PGA champion Jimmy Walker, who wasn’t even planning to be at Bay Hill until he mixed up the dates for a trip to Augusta National, holed a wedge from 132 yards for eagle on No. 18 that gave him a 5-under 67 and a one-shot lead over Woods, Patrick Reed and Byeong Hun An.
The action never stopped. The loudest cheers were around Woods.
Woods returned to Bay Hill for the first time since his record eighth victory in 2013, and it was like he had never left. The gallery was enormous, despite the unseasonable chill in the air, and he delivered a memorable show.
Last week at Innisbrook was the first time he broke par in the opening round since his return following a fourth back surgery. Today at Bay Hill was the first he broke 70. Each round seems to get a little better.
“I feel like I’m not really thinking as much around the golf course,” Woods said. “I can just see and feel it and go.”
Rory McIlroy, among those playing in the afternoon, already was at 5 under through 10 holes.
Coming off a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship that raised expectations of a victory being closer than ever, Woods started and finished strong, with one mishap in the middle.
His drive on No. 3, his 12th hole of the round, sailed to the right and went off a cart path and toward the houses. Only when he reached the ball did Woods find it rolled into the bottom of a mesh fence. It looked like it was in play, except the poles on the waist-high fence were the boundaries, and his ball was inches outside of them.
He went back to the tee, sprayed the next tee shot under a tree and made double bogey.
And then came the big finish — two birdies on the par 5s, including a bold flop shot from a tight lie over a bunker at No. 6 — and then a 70-foot putt he was hoping would be close. Woods immediately pressed his hand down, asking for the ball to slow down, and then watched it drop for a most unlikey birdie.
“I was trying to lag it down there and just make my par and get out of here,” he said. “It had to crash at the hole — which I’m not complaining — and it went in.”
He closed with a 12-foot putt to save par from the bunker.
Walker was on the other side of the golf course finishing up at the same time. He went over the green on the par-5 16th for a tough up-and-down for birdie, made it through the par-3 17th without any drama and finished up on the toughest hole at Bay Hill.
His wedge hopped twice and disappeared for a 2.
“Those work on any hole,” Walker said.
Walker rarely plays Bay Hill because of tournaments in Texas he prefers to play ahead of the Masters, and this year was going to be no exception. He had a trip to Augusta National planned with some friends and club members and thought it was this weekend.
Instead, it was meant to be Monday and Tuesday. Walker’s wife, Erin, has a horse-jumping show in West Palm Beach. The kids are with their grandparents skiing in Utah.
“I figured I might as well play,” Walker said.
He had two days at Augusta National, didn’t have a practice round at Bay Hill because he wasn’t in pro-am and matched his lower score at Bay Hill. He also had a 67 in the second round in 2005.
“It’s just golf,” he shrugged. “Just hit the shots. I’ve done so many Monday qualifiers earlier in my career where you never see the golf course. Sometimes it helps because you’re not overdoing it.”
Reed was atop the leaderboard, and then he wasn’t, and then he returned. He hit into the lake on the 18th and made double bogey, made the turn and dropped another shot to fall back to even par, and then made five birdies over his last eight holes for a 68.
The biggest charge came from Justin Rose, who had every reason to think this might be a long day and a short week. Rose went into the water on his second hole (No. 11) of the round and three-putted for a triple bogey. He was 4 over after six holes.
He made seven birdies the rest of the way and shot 69.
“I obviously knew it wasn’t a great start, but I also knew that it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world,” Rose said. “I scratched a line on my scorecard and I said, ‘All right, we start something new.’”
The objective was to get back to even par for the day. He did three better.