Hero World Challenge: Fleetwood leads, but Tiger rules

For the record, England’s in-form Tommy Fleetwood shot a bogey-free 66 for a one-stroke lead over Americans Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.

Britain's golfer Tommy Fleetwood tees off from the first hole during the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at Albany Golf Club in Nassau, Bahamas.   -  AP

Standing on the seventh tee, Tiger Woods sipped water as he waited for Henrik Stenson and Alex Noren, playing a group ahead, to finish putting.

During this time, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, playing in the group behind Tiger, reached the sixth green and lined up his putt. There was nothing unusual about what the players were doing. But what stood out was the sharp contrast between the gallery that followed Tiger and Dustin.

If a couple of hundred spectators walked the course under bright sun and cheered Tiger even when he found par, Dustin’s third birdie over the first six holes was watched closely by just one spectator!

The moment truly reflected what Tiger’s return to the sport meant for the golf lovers. At the end of the opening day of the $3.5-million Hero World Challenge, it didn’t matter how well Dustin putted or who led the field. Tiger ruled the hearts with his presence and play that fetched him a card of three-under 69 to be tied-eighth.

For the record, England’s in-form Tommy Fleetwood shot a bogey-free 66 for a one-stroke lead over Americans Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.

Given the presence of eight from the world’s top-10 list of professionals in the elite field of 18, the quality of play was understandably high. Only Alex Noren and Daniel Berger failed to break par. Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama recovered for a 71.

Even Tiger’s playing partner, World No. 3 Justin Thomas, carded a 69 after struggling on the front-nine.

In Tiger’s words, “It was not only nice to get the first round out of the way, but also I’m only three shots out of the lead. So to be able to put myself there after not playing for, is it 10 months or so, in the neighbourhood of that, it was nice to feel the adrenaline out there.”

Describing his card dotted with five birdies, two bogeys and a couple of spectacular par-putts, Tiger said, “Up and down because I had a lot of birdies, made a lot of putts. I didn’t play the par 5s very well, made two 6s and I grinded it out and made a few pars, which is nice.”

After two-putting from about 40 feet for his first birdie on the par-5 third hole, Tiger courted trouble with his approach to the fourth green, under-hitting a chip that stood at the fringe. But Tiger produced a 20-footer putt to save par, pumped his fist and triggered off the day’s first roar from the crowd. The roar was much louder when he drained a second birdie — from 25 feet — on the par-3 eighth.

However, Tiger was to falter on the next hole. His first of the two bogeys followed after a duffed approach-chip.

After taking the turn at one-under, Tiger straightway picked up a shot with a 15-foot birdie. The next two holes tested the 14-time major winner’s ability to save pars, first from 10 feet and then to get up-and-down from an upward lie in the rough.

These escapes raised Tiger’s belief in his abilities as the produced a 15-footer for a third birdie and came within one stroke of the lead at that moment.

However, the excitement was proved too brief as an ill-directed drive on the par-5 15th forced Tiger to take a ‘drop’ for a bogey. He found par on the next two holes, pitching just one foot from the pin on the 17th.

On the final hole, Tiger once again had to recover from tough lie close to the green. He saved par by pitching to about five feet.

First round scores:

66 – Tommy Fleetwood (Eng); 67 – Rickie Fowler (US), Matt Kuchar (US); 68 – Kevin Chappell (US), Justin Rose (Eng), Dustin Johnson (US), Jordan Spieth (US); 69 – Francesco Molinari (Ita), Charley Hoffman (US), Justin Thomas (US), Tiger Woods (US); 70 – Henrik Stenson (Swe), Kevin Kisner (US); 71 – Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Brooks Koepka (US); 72 – Patrick Reed (US); 73 – Alex Noren (Swe); 75 – Daniel Berger (US).