Woods, a 14-time major champion and four-time Masters winner who missed last year after back surgery, made four bogeys and three birdies to finish nine strokes behind 21-year-old pace-setter Jordan Spieth after 18 holes.
“It was a good day. I felt good out there,” Woods said. “I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot 3-under par.”
The 39-year-old former world number one, who has fallen to 111th in the rankings, was coming off a two-month layoff to improve his form after woeful chipping led to a career-worst 82 at Phoenix and a withdrawal in February at Torrey Pines after only 11 holes.
Strong practice rounds sparked hope of a quick return to Masters glory for Woods, but such was not the case. But while he sprayed errant tee shots at times, Woods was solid with his short game.
“It’s my strength again,” Woods said. “That’s why I’ve busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it’s back to being my strength.
“I tried to hole most of them, that’s the thing. I’m back to hitting shots, making it hop, check on the second bounce, third bounce, I can figure those things out again.”
Woods has not won a Masters since 2005 and has not won a major since the 2008 US Open. His last tourney win was the 2013 WGC at Firestone, which put him three shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA titles.
But Woods remains confident he can win this weekend.
“I’m still in it. I’m only nine back. And we have a long way to go,” Woods said. “And we don’t know what the Masters is going to do with the greens or the golf course. You know how they like to change things every now and then.”
Woods said the greens were almost too welcoming, saying, “I couldn’t believe they were as slow as they were,” and lammented two “dumb mistakes” at the ninth hole that led to a bogey.
Woods opened with a bogey after hitting his first shot right into trees. His tee shot at the second sailed left into trees but he blasted out and put his third shot four feet from the cup to set up a birdie.
At the par-3 fourth, Woods found a bunker fronting the green, blasted 18 feet past the hole and took bogey.
But Woods birdied the par-5 eighth and appeared to be on solid ground as he strode to the ninth tee.
Instead, his tee shot sailed way left over pine trees into the adjacent first fairway. His second shot went into the trees and landed in pine straw at the bottom of the elevated green, Woods swinging his club in frustration after making contact.
Woods responded by punching his third shot onto the green and rolled a 49-foot putt inches from the cup for a tap-in bogey that could have been worse.
On the back nine, Woods took a bogey at the par-3 12th but answered with a birdie on the next hole.