By Andrew Both
CHIBA, Japan (Reuters) - Tiger Woods returned to competition in style, shooting his best score in more than a year to take the lead with a spectacular six-under-par 64 in the opening round at the Zozo Championship on Thursday.
Two months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, the 15-time major champion made an "ugly start", hitting his opening tee shot with a five wood into a pond at Narashino Country Club.
Three straight bogeys augured for a long day, but for the next 15 holes he could do nothing wrong, running up nine birdies in his first career appearance in the Tokyo area.
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 after earning a share of the lead with fellow American Gary Woodland, one shot in front of home favorite Hideki Matsuyama.
"I hit bad shot after bad shot after bad shot ... and next thing you know, things aren't looking very good," Woods said.
"I certainly was not expecting to shoot six under par after that start. That was a very ugly start. It flipped and I got hot and made a bunch of putts."
He was also aided by a lucky bounce at his final hole, the par-four ninth, where he slammed his driver into the ground in frustration after carving his tee shot way right.
But he had a bashful smile on his face a few seconds later after his ball hit a tree and ricocheted back towards the fairway.
He made the most of his reprieve. From 194 yards, he took direct aim at the pin and hoisted an eight iron that landed a few feet in front of the hole, setting up a closing birdie.
It was by far the most impressive performance by the 43-year-old American since he ended a 10-year major drought by winning the Masters in April.
His season petered out after that amid a psychological letdown and a worsening left knee, and he was not a factor in the other three majors.
After failing to qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship, he had the knee procedure in August which he had long postponed.
The Zozo Championship, the first official-money event in Japan, will be his final event before he, as captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team, must select four players to complete his line-up for December's event in Australia.
His form on Thursday can only strengthen the case to be a playing captain.
His 64 was his best score since he carded 62 in the first round of the BMW Championship in September of last year.
"This is how I've been hitting it at home, so that (64) wasn't a real big surprise," he said.
The opening round on Thursday was played in fine if cloudy weather, but a forecast for torrential rain on Friday has players wondering how much competition will be possible before the course becomes unplayable.
(Reporting by Andrew Both; editing by Richard Pullin and Jason Neely)