Tiger Woods got off to a horrific start before roaring back with nine birdies in 15 holes to share the inaugural Zozo Championship lead in Japan Thursday as Rory McIlroy struggled.
After slumping to three-over par after three holes, Woods recovered in stunning fashion to finish with a back-nine of 29 and a six-under round of 64 alongside US Open champion Gary Woodland.
“I certainly was not expecting to shoot six-under par after that start,” admitted Woods.
“It was ugly early and it was nice to be able to flip it and really get it going.
“Now I’m in a position where we’re going to have a long, long weekend of a lot of golf that hopefully I can keep it going.”
The American pair head into Friday with a one-shot lead over home hero Hideki Matsuyama, after Woods endured a roller coaster round at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Inzai City.
McIlroy had a day where he couldn’t find his usual range with his irons and his putter was cold in a two-over 72 featuring a double bogey six at the 12th.
It was Woods’ lowest season-opening round in his long career and came as the 43-year-old chases an 82nd US PGA Tour victory to tie the all-time record held by Sam Snead.
That had not seemed remotely possible early on as Woods exhibited signs of rust from a two-month layoff for arthroscopic left knee surgery.
Starting his round on the 10th tee, the 15-time major winner dropped three shots in as many holes with three consecutive bogeys.
He steadied himself with a par at the 13th before turning his round completely on its head with three birdies in a row to get back to level par.
His fourth gain in five holes at the 18th saw him turn for home in one-under 35.
By now Woods was firmly in the groove and three more birdies in a row from the third, his 12th hole, took the charging Tiger into a share of the lead at four under.
A two at the short seventh put Woods ahead on his own to a deafening roar from packed galleries in golf-crazy sell-out crowd of 17,734.
“It was loud, it was very loud,” said Woods.
“The people here in Japan have come out and supported this event and it’s been a lot of fun to play in front of them again. I haven’t done it in a while and I’ve missed it.”
Woods made his final gain at the ninth where he barked for his ball to “get down” out of the rough.
“This grass, Zoysia, man. You can get some serious flyers out here, monster flyers,” said Woods.
“The one I hit on the last hole, we were trying to hit an eight-iron 200 yards and hit it 200. That’s not something I normally do.”
The Zozo Championship offers a $9.75 million prize pot as the middle leg of the Tour’s new near $30 million three-tournament Asian swing.
It began last week at the $9.75 million CJ Cup in South Korea, won by Justin Thomas who shot a level par 70 on Thursday, and concludes at next week’s $10.25 million WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
Under threat of a tropical storm moving through the area from late morning, Friday’s second round will start an hour earlier at 7am (2200 GMT Thursday) with the last three balls teeing off at 9am.