Date: March 16, 2018
Author: Mark Hayes

Tigermania reaches the bookies

Extraordinarily, Tiger Woods is the Masters favourite.

Woods, named this week as captain of the US team for next year’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, carved an opening four-under-par 68 this morning to immediately jump into the mix at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

And barring a penalty when he flared a drive out of bounds right on the par-four third hole at Bay Hill, his 12th, his return to prominence after back fusion surgery would have hit overdrive.

As it was, giant Swede Henrik Stenson rediscovered his powerful best to lead with a 64, one shot clear of young Americans Talor Gooch and 2016 Australian Master of the Amateurs champion Aaron Wise.

Of the Australians in the field, defending champion Marc Leishman made four birdies against two bogeys for his opening 70 to sit T22, while Perth’s Curtis Luck took a penalty en route to a double-bogey six on the 15th in an otherwise impressive 71 (T32).

But none of their other countrymen were under par.

Major champions Adam Scott and Jason Day each fired 73 (T69), Cam Smith a 75 (T96) that left him needing a low number tomorrow to press his Masters chances, and Stuart Appleby a 78 (T116).

But all the talk was, again, of Woods.

The 42-year-old, in his comeback from back fusion surgery, had impressed in Miami a few weeks ago before sending the Internet into a frenzy at the weekend when second at Tampa Bay.

The 14-time major champion turned in three under after starting on the 10th and, with two reachable par-fives still ahead, looked set to extend his early edge over the field.

As it turned out, he made birdie on both of those holes, but they only served to wipe away the damage of the double-bogey on the third.

Still, a 23m bomb for birdie on the par-three seventh was enough to send the crowd into utter delirium and continued to build his momentum towards a charge at a fifth green jacket in April at Augusta National.

“They (the fans) are into it, it's been fun,” Woods said afterwards.

“The atmosphere we've been able to play in front of since I've come back has been absolutely incredible.

“It feels great the people are so supportive. It has been great atmosphere overall since I've come back and started playing again.”

Bookmakers around the world are also getting either excited or nervous with his Masters odds slashed for the umpteenth time in the past month, now with some having him on the same line as world No.1 Dustin Johnson and No.2 Justin Thomas as top picks.

Woods took a moment to dampen the burgeoning expectations, reminding media and fans that he is only two months into a comeback from major surgery.

“You guys are asking different questions from when I first came back and it wasn't that long ago, it was two months ago and the narrative has completely flipped,” Woods said.

“I enjoy just playing again, playing feels good. Just take a different perspective over it is all I'm asking.”

The American gave his play the thumbs up, but said there was still work to do.

“Everything can be shored up, everything can be a little bit tighter, a little bit better. But everyone says that, I'm not different,” he said.

“I've got three more days here and hopefully cap it off with a nice win.

“It's just playing tournament golf, I've been away from it for so long.

“When I first game back it was just getting my feel for tournament golf again and I think I have I feel like I am not really thinking as much around the golf course, it's more see it, feel it and go.

“That's just because I have my feels back again.”