Tiger Woods said his left knee felt as strong as he thought it was. His game didn’t look half bad, either.
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Playing for the first time in nearly three months, Woods made a strong opening statement Thursday that his health is no longer an issue by going after any shot from any lie in a round of 2-under-par 68 at the Bridgestone Invitational.
”It feels great,” Woods said. ”As anybody who’s been off and who’s been injured, first time back it’s a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there’s no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and let it go, let it rip, and see what happens.”
His ex-caddie saw the kind of golf he was used to seeing at Firestone, too.
Steve Williams, now working permanently for Adam Scott after Woods fired him a month ago, watched the Australian play flawlessly in matching his career-low round with a 62 that gave Scott a one-shot lead.
Williams was on the bag for all seven of Woods’ wins at Firestone, including his record score of 259 when he won by 11 shots in 2000.
”He didn’t think it was a big deal to shoot 62,” Scott said. ”It was normal.”
Woods, who last completed a round at the Masters, had his lowest opening round of the year. Considering the soft conditions, it only was worth a tie for 18th, six shots out of the lead.
With an overcast sky in the morning and barely any wind throughout the steamy afternoon, half of the 78-man field at this World Golf Championship broke par.
Jason Day, who tied for second with Scott at the Masters, shot a 63 in the morning. Nick Watney, a World Golf Championship winner at Doral this year, bogeyed the last hole and still had a 65.
Woods at least got himself pointed in the right direction.
Playing in soft spikes for the first time, and going back to the putter that he used in 13 of his major championships, Woods avoided a poor start by making an 18-foot par putt on the third, and he saved his round toward the end of the front nine by getting up and down from a bunker on the eighth, and making a 20-foot par putt on the ninth.
Then came his approach on the 10th, that spun out of the back fringe and settled about 4 feet away for birdie — not only his first of the day, but his first since he two-putted for birdie from 4 feet on the 15th hole at the Masters on April 10.
Woods injured a knee ligament and his Achilles’ tendon in that tournament, and then said he returned too early at The Players Championship. He aggravated the injuries on the first hole at the TPC Sawgrass and quit after nine holes at 6 over par. He said he would not play again until he was fully healthy, and that much showed at Firestone.
There was one moment on the 17th tee when a reporter thought he saw Woods’ left leg in a peculiar position.
”The marker was right in my way,” Woods said with a grin.
Perhaps more telling is that Woods said he stopped putting ice on his leg and taking inflammatory medicine ”a while ago,” and held nothing back in his first competitive round in 84 days.
”I hadn’t really gone at it yet until today,” he said. ”Just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots. Today was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s go play, just put everything else aside and let’s go give it a go and try to post a low number.”
His lone bogey came on the 14th hole, when he tried to hit a perfect bunker shot from a slightly downhill lie with the green running away from him. He came inches short of pulling it off, leaning back in disbelief. He two-putted from the collar for bogey, and then came back two holes later with a shot that showed he might already be at full strength.
From the right rough on the par-5 16th, blocked by trees, Woods went after a 3-wood and cut short his backswing as he tried to fade it around the trees. It went farther than he expected, and while his approach was 30 feet long, he holed the birdie putt, raising the putter in his left hand when it dropped in the center of the cup.
The only problem he had was controlling his distance, and Woods had a reason for that, too.
”I’m hitting it just so much more flush, and I’m just not used to that,” he said. Does that mean he was hitting it badly before?
”Yeah,” he said. ”My swing was more of a wipey swing … so I wasn’t getting a full transfer of energy. Now I’m swinging easier. I’m not even hitting it hard yet, and that’s what’s fun. I’m hitting it farther without any more effort.”
It took great effort to get atop the leaderboard.
Day went out early and posted a bogey-free round of 63, making birdie on the last hole. No one else from the morning group was better than a 66. And then it was Scott’s turn in the afternoon.
He thought 63 was a pretty low score for this South course, but then figured it was there for the taking with so many other scores in the 60s.
”I just feel like I need to get myself in these things from Thursday, show up and go, not show up and see how you get on the first nine,” Scott said. ”I feel like that’s a good way for me to go because I’m hitting the ball well, and I feel really confident on the greens. It was green light and just attack.”