It was a mixed start for Woods, who has not contested a top-level event since the 2020 Masters, which was played in November that year.
The 15-time major winner suffered multiple leg injuries and was lucky to be alive after a crash in February last year in California. He later admitted he feared his leg would be amputated.
On Thursday, a 30-minute delay due to bad weather meant Woods started his first round at 11.04 local time (4.04PM BST), coincidentally the same time at which he teed off on day one in 2019.
Woods holed from 10 feet for par on the first after his approach had rolled back off the front of the green and, after lipping out on the fifth, hit a superb tee shot to two feet on the next to set up a tap-in birdie.
The 46-year-old bogeyed the par-five eighth after needing four to get down from 50 yards short of the green, but saved par on the ninth after a pulled drive into the trees.
Playing partner Joaquin Niemann span his approach to the ninth back into the hole for an eagle to vault into the lead as the first player to reach three under par.
The first group teed off at 08.30 local time (1.30PM BST) after Watson had joined Nicklaus and Player in acting as an honorary starter for the first time.
With light rain still falling, Player, Nicklaus and Watson hit their ceremonial tee shots on the opening hole, with the latter asking permission to say a few words before his turn.
“I would like to say how honoured I am to be with Gary and Jack,” the two-time Masters champion said.
“I have watched this ceremony many times with Arnie (Arnold Palmer), Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, and to be a part of this thing I am truly humbled.”
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Watson’s competitive instincts remained intact however as he also asked Player how far his drive had gone, with Player replying: “You could hear it land. Not very far.”
England’s Paul Casey withdrew before the start of play due to the back injury which also forced him out of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last month.
In 2019, Woods went on to win his 15th major title, 3,954 days since he claimed his previous one when he beat Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the 2008 US Open, despite a double stress fracture and knee injury which prompted season-ending surgery.
The emotional victory came two years after he told golfing legend Jack Nicklaus “I’m done” during the pre-tournament Champions Dinner.
He then flew straight to London to see the consultant who recommended he undergo what proved to be career-saving spinal fusion surgery.