PALM HARBOR, FLORIDA | Those who have insisted a successful Tiger Woods comeback could never happen are now beginning to sweat.
Coming off of a 12th-place finish at the Honda Classic, Woods had an exuberant crowd captivated from the opening gun during his 1-under 70 Thursday at the Valspar Championship. It started with a delicate flop shot to 9 inches, setting up a birdie at the first. It ended with a par save for the ages on No. 16 – he nearly snapped his club in half while extracting himself from the trees – and a near ace on No. 17 that put him into red figures and into the top 10, three strokes behind solo leader Corey Conners.
“Today was tough, man,” Woods said. “I don’t know if these people really understand how hard it was out there. It’s tough trying to pull a club, trying to figure out the wind direction, trying to figure out the gusts … the whole group got fooled a lot today.”
He took 25 putts around Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course, but that number included a trio of makeable par misses on Nos. 9, 12 and 13. As was the case during the Honda Classic, Woods hit the ball well in difficult wind conditions and had a roller-coaster round of many birdies and bogeys.
“I enjoy when par is a good score and it’s a reward,” Woods said. “There are some tournaments where after four holes, you don’t make a birdie and you feel like you’re behind.”
While the biggest attraction made five birdies in an exciting round, other stars around him faltered.
Rory McIlroy made a sloppy double bogey on No. 5 on the way to a 3-over-par 74. His only birdie of the day came on No. 7 when he holed a bunker shot.
Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, Woods’ playing partners, looked uncomfortable in the cool, blustery conditions. Spieth’s putting woes remained a mystery in his round of 5-over 76 and Stenson failed to make at least one birdie or better for the first time in 165 rounds as he carded a 3-over 74.
A few notable names joined Woods with a 1-under 70. Sergio García, Adam Scott and Justin Rose all came in at the same mark during the morning wave.