Tiger Woods builds on momentum with 4-under 68 to open Arnold Palmer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tiger Woods performed his own version of March Madness on Thursday.

Despite a double-bogey on the 12th hole, Woods posted a 4-under 68 to trail leader Henrik Stenson by four shots in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the back of a half-dozen birdies.

None was more exciting than the one he hit on the par-3 seventh hole -- his 16th of the day. With a pin set to the left side of the green, Woods missed on the right side of the putting surface. He then drained a 71-foot birdie that elicited huge roars from the gallery and a giant smile from Woods himself.

"My dad always told me, 'Just putt to the picture,'" he later said. "And I was asking for it to bite as it came over that knob. It was a little too hot, and it had to crash in the hole."

Following a share of second place at last week's Valspar Championship, Woods appears to be building on his recent momentum -- and it's happening so far at a venue he knows very well.

Woods is seeking his ninth victory at Bay Hill. A win this week would give him 80 in his career, just two shy of all-time leader Sam Snead.

His numbers at this venue are already legendary. In 16 previous starts as a professional, he's never missed the cut, owns 14 top-25 results and is a total of 121 under par. The most impressive number, though, is his earnings. He's claimed exactly $7,319,359.53 at this event.

Sunday's final round also marks 1,687 days since his last PGA Tour title -- the exact span between wins for Phil Mickelson, until he won two weeks ago.

Even in early contention, Woods was quick to remind the assembled media just how far he's come, and how quickly. He's only 11 months removed from spinal fusion surgery, a fourth procedure on his back, and just six months from starting to hit golf balls again afterward.

"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," he recalled. "The narrative has completely flipped from how you guys ask me questions, 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. No, I enjoy just playing again after what I've been through. Playing feels good."

Unbeknownst to him, Woods was even making off-course news while he was still competing.

During his opening nine Thursday morning, Woods was elevated to the betting favorite for next month's Masters by the Westgate Las Vegas Casino. At 8-to-1, he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. In his first start at Augusta National since 2015, he'll be attempting to claim a fifth green jacket.