Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 January 2020

Tiger Woods returns in style to shoot best score in more than a year as he takes joint lead at Zozo Championship

American finishes with a six-under-par 64, backed by a ferocious support in Japan

Tiger Woods returned to competition in style, shooting his best score in more than a year to take a joint lead at the Zozo Championship in Japan.

Two months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, the 15-times major champion could hardly have made a worse start, hitting his opening drive into a pond at Narashino Country Club on Thursday.

Three straight bogeys augured for a long day, but for the next 15 holes the American could do nothing wrong, running up nine birdies in his first career appearance in the Tokyo area.

He finished with 64, sharing the lead with countryman Gary Woodland, one shot ahead of home favourite Hideki Matsuyama.

Rory McIlroy had a day where he struggled to 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.

Followed by a huge sellout gallery of 17,000, nearly all of whom had eyes for one player only, Woods did not let them down with a performance that conjured up images of the halcyon days when he strutted the fairways with an aura of invincibility.

"It was a crazy day," he said. "I hit bad shot after bad shot after bad shot [early]. Next thing you know it's not looking good.

"Even par at the turn was my goal. I was able to get more out of it and, lo and behold, I had an easier side I was going to.

"I certainly was not expecting to shoot six-under par after that start. 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."

As for his ferocious support, he said: "It was loud, it was very loud. 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."

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.

The 43-year-old American ended a 10-year major drought when he won the Masters in April, but his season petered out amid a psychological letdown and a worsening left knee.

The Zozo Championship, the first official-money event in Japan, will be his final event before he must select four players to complete his line-up for December's Presidents Cup in Australia.

There has been much speculation that Woods, captain of the US team that will take on the Internationals, will use one of those picks to choose himself, and his form on Thursday can only strengthen the case.

His 64 was his best score since he carded 62 in the first round of the BMW Championship in September of last year.

The opening round was played in fine if cloudy weather, but a dire forecast for a tropical storm on Friday has players wondering how much competition will be possible before the course becomes unplayable.

The tournament offers a $9.75m (Dh35.8m) prize pot as the middle leg of the Tour's new near $30 million three-tournament Asian swing.

It began last week at the $9.75m CJ Cup in South Korea, won by Justin Thomas who shot a level par 70 on Thursday, and concludes at next week's $10.25m WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

Updated: October 24, 2019 12:36 PM