Woods teed off at Isleworth in the 18-player event with golf fans watching the $3.5 million (2.8 million euro) tournament for hints as to whether the former world number one might revive the form that has brought him 14 major titles, four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record.
Woods, who has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open, smacked his first tee shot out of bounds to the left, forcing him to hit a second that found the fairway.
The 38-year-old then dropped a wedge approach two feet from the cup and made a bogey.
The nagging back pain that sidelined Woods most of this year has been replaced by a smoother swing that once more displays the strength and explosiveness that brought fans from beyond the golf realm to watch him play.
“It feels fantastic,” Woods said. “I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve gotten more explosive.”
Woods, who turned back to younger motions for his latest swing changes after talks with new swing consultant Chris Como, has no timetable on when he might return to peak form.
“I’m curious to find that out, too,” Woods said. “It’s going to be nice to play a tournament this week and get a feel for being under the heat and see where my swing is.
“I think I have a good understanding of what I need to do to hit certain shots and see what happens.”
There is excitement about how a fully fit Woods, now ranked 24th, might fare against world number one Rory McIlroy and 2014 Masters runner-up Jordan Spieth at next year’s Masters, where McIlroy will be trying to complete a career grand slam by capturing a green jacket.
– Can’t outdrive foes –
But Woods is cautions that while he has video from younger days to provide a base for his latest swing, no one should expect him to have the epic driving distance of his youth.
“I can’t blow it out there with some of the longer guys anymore,” Woods said. “But there are other ways to go around a golf course. You can win at a very late age because you don’t have to physically dominate anybody. You just have to beat the golf course.”
Not generating such power might also ease the strain on Woods’ knees, which required several operations to repair in his heyday.
Woods, who turns 39 on December 30, must become the first player in history to win four majors past his 39th birthday to catch Nicklaus’ total. But Woods has shattered plenty of golf records already.
“I’m not quite 40 yet,” Woods said. “So I’ve still got some time.”
Woods was paired with Australian Jason Day, also returning from a back injury, for the first round at the 7,354-yard, par-72 layout.
The field also includes reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, world number two Henrik Stenson of Sweden, 2013 US Open winner Justin Rose of England and Spieth.
Woods won the Challenge in 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011 but this is the first time the event, which benefits his charity foundation, has been held at Isleworth.
It’s the development where Woods once lived. A 2009 auto crash into a fire hydrant at Isleworth led to the revelation of Woods’ epic sex scandal. -AFP