Baylor grad Keith Mitchell shares lead at Riviera with all eyes on Tiger Woods

AP photo by Ryan Kang / Tiger Woods acknowledges the gallery on the ninth hole at Riviera Country Club during the first round of the PGA Tour's Genesis Invitational on Thursday in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES —The scene was similar to the last time Tiger Woods played against the world's best golfers. Fans packed onto every balcony on every level of the clubhouse, all of them straining for a rare sight of the sport's biggest star.

Woods had them cheering even louder at the end Thursday at Riviera Country Club.

The 15-time major champion put on a show in his first real competition in seven months, closing with three straight birdies and one big smile for a 2-under-par 69 in the PGA Tour's Genesis Invitational, leaving him five shots behind Max Homa and Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell.

Woods went bunker to fairway to bunker on the 10th hole and had to make an eight-footer to save bogey. He was wild off the tee for another bogey on the 12th, leaving him over par on a mild, breezy afternoon.

And then he looked like the Woods of old at the end — a tee shot to five feet on the par-3 16th, another birdie from 25 feet on the par-5 17th, and then a big drive — a few yards longer than Rory McIlroy — on the 18th that set up his 9-iron that left the ball seven feet from the cup.

"I was able to fight back and get it going," said Woods, the tournament's host. "It was a nice finish."

His legs held up fine, though they were still sore. His final task of the opening round was making it up those 52 steps toward the clubhouse to sign his card. The next step is a quick turnaround. Woods finished about 5 p.m. local time, and he faced a 7:24 a.m. start to the second round Friday.

Homa played in the morning and also finished with three straight birdies for a 64. Mitchell played in the afternoon and birdied the last two holes to join him.

A handful of players were still on the course when the first round was suspended by darkness, though none with more than two holes remaining.

Jon Rahm was alone in third, having opened with a 65 as he bids to return to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, a position he lost to Scottie Scheffler when the latter won the Phoenix Open last Sunday. Matt Kuchar opened with a 30 on the front nine and settled for a 66, along with two-time major champion Collin Morikawa and Harris English. Those three were one ahead of a big seventh-place group that included McIlroy.

With English and Mitchell joined in the field by fellow Baylor School graduates Stephan Jaeger and Luke List, all four former Red Raiders standouts currently on the PGA Tour are competing this week. Jaeger (68) was tied for 14th, while List (70) was tied for 44th in a group that included Scheffler.

Even with Rahm, Scheffler and other big names in action, all eyes seemed to be elsewhere.

That was to be expected with Woods playing. He has commanded all the attention for the past 25 years, and now Tiger sightings are rare because of legs that have been battered by knee surgeries (left) and a car crash (right).

There also was that matter of rust, which went beyond his golf. He hasn't heard this kind of noise since last July during the British Open at St. Andrews.

"I haven't played in a tournament in long time," said Woods, who did take part in the the low-key PNC Championship with son Charlie and a TV exhibition back in December. "I didn't look up as much. I was trying to calm myself down all day, figure out what the hell I'm doing out here. ... I probably should have appreciated the fans more than I did, but there was so much going on in my head."

The group certainly helped. For the third time in a run of four appearances at Riviera, Woods played alongside Justin Thomas and McIlroy, two of his closest friends in golf. They all birdied the 18th, McIlroy for a 67, Thomas for a 68.

It was a treat for the thousands who followed them along.

The space behind the first tee at Riviera was so crammed that Seamus Power had to squeeze his way through fans to get to the putting green. Fans began chanting Woods' name when he arrived. The applause when he was announced wasn't quite as loud, mainly because so many people were holding phones high above their heads to get a picture.

And it stayed that way throughout the afternoon. There was a large rush of fans going down the eighth fairway as Woods was approaching the seventh green. No, this wasn't the seventh inning of a Dodgers game in a bid to beat L.A.'s famous traffic. They were moving ahead, trying to find a spot to see the man with a record-tying 82 PGA Tour victories, though none since October 2019, when Woods matched Sam Snead for the mark at the Zozo Championship in Japan.

Woods opened with a good pitch to four feet for a birdie on the par-5 first, the easiest hole at Riviera, and he followed with two more pars before missing the green and then a par putt from 10 feet on the long par-3 fourth.

As for his legs, there was a noticeable limp as he descended a steep cart path from the first tee.

It looked as though his round might fall apart on the 10th — a drive into the bunker some 50 yards short of the green, blasting out weakly short of the green, and then a pitch that ran past the flag and trickled into the back bunker.

He did well to make a bogey, and that set up the big surge at the end.

Homa won at Riviera two years ago and called it the coolest thing he had ever done in golf, and for good reason. He grew up about 30 miles away and used to attend this tournament as a fan. He also won when his beloved Dodgers and Lakers were champions in Major League Baseball and the NBA, respectively, and it was Woods presenting him the trophy.

Victories are not routine for Homa, but he is getting used to them. He already has won twice this season, most recently three weeks ago down the coast in San Diego at Torrey Pines, with that Farmers Insurance Open triumph the sixth of his career on the PGA Tour.

He began his round on the 10th, regarded as the best short par 4 in the country, and went long off the green, hit a flop shot into the back bunker and then holed out for a birdie.

The finish was even better, a prelude to what Woods delivered at the end of the day.