The scene was similar to the last time Tiger Woods played against the world’s best. Fans packed onto every balcony on every level of the Riviera clubhouse Thursday, all of them straining for a rare sight of golf’s biggest star.
Woods had them cheering even louder at the end.
He put on a show in his first competition in seven months, closing with three straight birdies and one big smile for a 2-under 69 in the Genesis Invitational, leaving him five shots behind Max Homa and Keith Mitchell.
Woods went bunker-to-fairway-to-bunker on the 10th hole and had to make an 8-footer to save bogey. He was wild off the tee for another bogey on the 12th, leaving him over par on a mild, breezy afternoon.
And then he looked like the Woods of old at the end – a tee shot to 5 feet on the par-3 16th, another birdie from 25 feet on the par-5 17th and then a big drive – a few yards longer than Rory McIlroy – on the 18th that set up 9-iron to 7 feet.
“I was able to fight back and get it going,” Woods said. “It was a nice finish.”
His legs held up fine, though still sore. The final task was making it up those 52 steps toward the clubhouse to sign his card. The next step is a quick turnaround. Woods finished about 5 p.m. local time, and faced a 7:24 a.m. start to the second round.
Homa played in the morning and also finished with three straight birdies for a 64. Mitchell played in the afternoon and birdied the last two holes to join him.
Jon Rahm opened with a 65 as he bids to return to No. 1 in the world. Matt Kuchar opened with a 30 on the front nine and settled for a 66, along with two-time major champion Collin Morikawa and Harris English.
Hardly anyone was watching them. That was to be expected with Woods playing. He has commanded all the attention for the last 25 years, and now Tiger sightings are rare because of legs that have been battered by knee surgeries (left) and a car crash (right).
There also was that matter of rust, which went beyond his golf. He hasn’t heard this kind of noise since last summer at St. Andrews.
“I haven’t played in a tournament in long time,” Woods said. “I didn’t look up as much. I was trying to calm myself down all day, figure out what the hell I’m doing out here. ... I probably should have appreciated the fans more than I did, but there was so much going on in my head.”
The group certainly helped. For the third time in his last four appearances at Riviera, Woods played alongside Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, two of his closest friends in golf. They all birdied the 18th, McIlroy for a 67, Thomas for a 68.
It was a treat for the thousands that followed them along.
The space behind the first tee at Riviera was so crammed that Seamus Power had to squeeze his way through fans to get to the putting green. Fans began chanting Woods’ name when he arrived. The applause when he was announced wasn’t quite as loud, mainly because so many people were holding phones high above their heads to get a picture.
And it stayed that way throughout the afternoon. There was a large rush of fans going down the eighth fairway as Woods was approaching the seventh green. No, this wasn’t the seventh inning of a Dodgers game in a bid to beat traffic. They were moving ahead trying to find a spot to see.
Woods opened with a good pitch to 4 feet for birdie on the par-5 first, the easiest hole at Riviera, and he followed with two more pars before missing the green and then a par putt from 10 feet on the long par-3 fourth.
As for his legs, there was a noticeable limp as he descended a steep cart path from the first tee.
It looked as though his round might fall apart on the 10th – a drive into the bunker some 50 yards short of the green, blasting out weakly short of the green, and then a pitch that ran past the flag and trickled into the back bunker.
He did well to make bogey, and that set up the big surge at the end.
Adam Svensson and Adam Hadwin were the leading Canadians with a 67 on the day. Nick Taylor (69), Corey Conners (71) and Mackenzie Hughes (72) rounded out the group.
Homa won at Riviera two years ago and called it the coolest thing he had ever done in golf, and for good reason. He grew up about 30 miles away and used to attend this tournament as a fan. He also won when his beloved Dodgers and Lakers were world champions. Oh, and Woods is the tournament host and presented him the trophy.
Victories are not routine for Homa, but he is getting used to them. He already has won twice this season, most recently three weeks ago down the coast at Torrey Pines.
He began his round on the 10th, regarded as the best short par 4 in the U.S., and went long off the green, hit a flop shot into the back bunker and then holed out for birdie.
The finish was even better, a prelude to what Woods delivered at the end of the day.