Tiger Woods was in a dog fight again, scrapping out pars, hitting ridiculous recovery shots and beating most of the guys in the field amid harsh-for-Florida weather conditions.
Woods shot 1-under 70 Thursday at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course and sits T-8 after Round 1 of the Valspar Championship.
He’s just three shots behind slightly less-marketable leader Corey Conners and in contention for the second time in as many starts. Woods has never played in this tournament, but chilly temperatures (as far as Tampa Bay-area temperatures go) and swirling, unpredictable winds kept scores just where Woods likes them.
“I enjoy when par is a good score. It’s a reward,” Woods said. “There are some tournaments when about four holes (in) you don’t make a birdie, you feel like you’re behind. … It’s a reward to go out there and make a couple birdies here and there and I like that type of challenge.”
Woods didn’t look like he was enjoying himself after bogeys at No. 12 and 13, falling back to even par on the round after birdies at 10 and 11. He walked off the 13th green so quickly he nearly slipped and fell into a greenside bunker en route to the 14th tee.
Those bogeys came on one of the most crowded and beer-soaked areas on property, with the sold-out Hooters Owl’s Nest overlooking the 12th green and 13th tee. Woods had to collect himself as thousands of fans shouted his name and jockeyed for position in tight quarters, trying to capture his every movement on their cell phones.
Thursday’s signature moment came shortly after, at the par-4 16th, where Woods sprayed his tee shot left and into a wooded area well off the fairway. A tree impeded Woods’ stance, allowing for little leg movement as he brushed against it with his left thigh and tried to get it somewhere in the vicinity of the green through a tight window.
He even warned surrounding fans that his club could snap in two, with the remains flying in any direction.
“I figured I could put some speed into this thing and I was going to feel it,” Woods said. “But I pulled it off.”
The tree immediately halted Woods’ follow-through after contact and his club went sailing forward, albeit in one piece. The ball somehow ended up just short of the green, and he got up-and-down for par.
Woods carried that momentum into the par-3 17th and hit 5-iron inside of 2 feet for a tap-in birdie. The grin returned after he walked off the tee box chatting with Jordan Spieth, who shot 5-over 76 on the day and is T-122.
“Today was tough, man,” Woods said. “I don’t really know if these people really understand how hard it was out there trying to pull a club, trying to figure out the wind direction, the gusts.”
Woods was able to figure it out in part because there are no glaring holes in his game right now. He’s been more accurate with the driver since missing the cut at the Genesis Open and looks extremely comfortable with a wedge in his hands. There are inconsistencies, but the flaws have looked less and less glaring with each competitive round now four PGA Tour starts into this comeback.
“Still working on it,” Woods said. “I’m getting a little better piece by piece.”
He called Thursday’s round the hardest test yet, and it seems only a matter of time until all the pieces come together again.