AKRON, Ohio - Tiger Woods' first full round of golf since April 10 was about as encouraging as he could have hoped for.
The former No. 1 player in the world shot a 2-under-par 68 Thursday afternoon in the opening round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone CC. While it might have paled in comparison to the 62 leader Adam Scott carded on the South Course (with former Woods caddie Steve Williams on his bag), Woods was pleased with the power of his swing and the his pain-free walk on the layout where he was won seven times.
"It feels great, feels great," said Woods, who during last year's struggles with his swing opened with a 74. "You know, 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 just let it go, let it rip and see what happens."
Woods, who had not competed since he withdrew from the Players after nine holes on May 12 and who had not finished 18 holes since posting T-4 at the Masters, struggled with his golf swing at times, especially early, but his putting bailed him out of several jams.
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He turned in even par thanks to par saves of 17 and 20 feet at the third and ninth, respectively, and then he birdied the first two holes of the back nine. A bogey at the 12th, after hitting a 9-iron into the back bunker, was erased with a 31-foot birdie putt at the 16th. He saved par at 18 despite missing his ninth fairway of the afternoon and having to punch out short of the green.
Playing in front of a large crowd standing 4-5 deep from tee to green on most holes, Woods not only struggled with the direction of his driver on the long, tree-lined South Course, but he also couldn't get dialed in on distances with his irons into greens. He hit 12 greens in regulation, but many times left himself long putts. Despite that, he needed only 27 putts with his trusty Scotty Cameron putter back in play.
"I had more speed, hit it more solid, more compression on the ball, so I was hitting it to numbers that I hadn't hit in a long time," said Woods, who reported no pain in his knee or Achilles. "I haven't hit it this flush in a long time.
"I was hitting proper shots out there, and the distances I was hitting the golf ball. I hadn't hit the ball like this. This was fun, to be able to hit the ball with that much flush feeling through the golf ball and speed I had. It was pretty nice."
If there was anything significant that came out of Woods' first tournament round in 12 weeks, it was the distance he hit the ball off the tee. He averaged 301.6 yards, including a 338-yard pop into the left rough at No. 9. He came into the week averaging 289.1 yards, which ranks a dismal 99th on the PGA Tour.
"I got my power back," Woods said, beaming.
Playing partner Darren Clarke, the reigning Open champion, was impressed.
"He played lovely. He hit a lot of good shots, which is what you expect of Tiger Woods," said Clarke, who struggled to a 77, tied for last. "[There were] a couple of rusty shots. But overall, he deserved the score he shot, if not a few better."
Clarke must have believed that, because as they walked to the scoring trailer and traded scorecards, Clarke, smiling, chided Woods, saying, "You want me to knock a few [shots] off of that?"
Woods hopes to do just that on Friday, legitimately.
"I expect myself to be more prepared going into [Friday]. I've got the competitive feel now," he said. "I know what it feels like to get into the flow of the round, the rhythm of playing and walking, and just the flow of playing tournament golf, which is way different than zipping around in shorts and a cart."
On Thursday, he was zipping around without a cart, feeling good, playing better, and drawing throngs of fans. Must have felt like old times.
All he has to do now is keep doing it.
-- Dave Shedloski
Follow on Twitter: [@DaveShedloski
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)