Tiger Woods smiled, rocked back on his heels a little and laughed before pointing a celebratory finger toward the Bay Hill crowd.
The 14-time major winner had just holed an astonishing 71-foot putt, the high point of Thursday’s four-under-par round that left Woods well in contention at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament.
“I feel like I’m not really thinking as much around the golf course,” Woods told the PGA Tour, reflecting on an upturn in form that has prompted many to ask if he is finally back to his imperious best.
“I can just see and feel it and go and that’s just because I’ve got my ‘feels’ back again.”
Woods was four shots behind first-round leader Henrik Stenson, as the American bids to win this event for the ninth time in his storied career.
After his round, reporters, still giddy after last week’s runner-up finish, were looking ahead to his prospects at the Masters in three weeks’ time.
“You guys are asking different questions than you did when I first came back and that wasn’t that long ago, that’s two months ago,” Woods said of his return to the game after 10 months out following a fourth back operation last year.
“The narrative has completely flipped and I just wanted to remind you guys that it wasn’t that long ago that you were asking a different set of questions and that you need to enjoy it. I enjoy just playing again after what I’ve been through. Playing feels good.”
The one blemish on the 42-year-old’s scorecard was a double bogey at the par-four third, although it was only the eighth bogey Woods has recorded in his last five rounds.
According to the PGA Tour website, he’s already completed 15 competitive rounds this year compared to just two in 2017.
Woods intimated that was the reason why he’s found some form after years ruined by back injury and personal issues.
“I think it’s just playing tournament golf,” said Woods, explaining the reasons behind his recent resurgence. “I’ve been away from it for so long that when I first came back it was just a matter of getting my feel for tournament golf again.”
The possibility that Woods could be in contention to win titles has captured the imagination of golf fans and caught the attention of odds makers.
He’s now as short as 8-1 with some bookmakers to win the Masters for a fifth time — what would be his 15th major title 10 years after his last.
Another player showing flashes of his finest form was Rory McIlroy.
The former world No. 1 needs a green jacket next month to complete a career grand slam of golf’s four majors and he looked in good shape in Florida, sitting five under through 17 holes.
A double bogey at the 18th meant a frustrating finish for the four-time major winner, but he’s still in the hunt for a first tournament win since September 2016.
“I guess with shooting what I shot today and only being (three under), it’s not disastrous,” said McIlroy, who missed the cut at last week’s Valspar Championship. “But I need to be better.”
While McIlroy and Woods continue to search for their best form, Stenson had no difficulty finding his Thursday.
The Swede’s eight-under-par 64 was the lowest round of his career.
I hit some beautiful shots out there today, ” Stenson told Sky Sports.
“I was rolling it really good. Last week I was struggling with the putting, put a lot of effort in before this week and managed to shape things up.”