Tiger Woods defied conditions he described as “brutal” as he fired an entertaining one-under 70 to lie just three shots off the lead after the first round of the Valspar Championship.
Woods produced several vintage shots, including a remarkable escape from the trees at the 16th followed immediately by a near hole-in-one, and he posted one of only 27 sub-par scores on the opening day as cool, blustery conditions and a tough Copperhead Course at Innisbrook took its toll on the field.
Canadian Corey Connors ended the round with the outright lead after he returned a commendable 67, while Scotland’s Russell Knox was one of only seven other players to break 70 as the likes of Rory McIlroy (74) and 2015 champion Jordan Spieth (76) face a tough task to make the halfway cut.
But Woods provided the story of the day on his debut in the tournament, and he got off to an encouraging start as he almost eagled the par-five first, shaving the hole with a sublime flop-shot from the rough which set up a tap-in for birdie.
The 42-year-old paid the price for flying the green at the short fourth as he was unable to get up-and-down for par, and he missed a great chance to get the shot back from six feet at the seventh after he had hit the pin with his approach.
Woods atoned with a perfect putt from 12 feet at the next, and he responded to a bogey at the ninth with back-to-back birdies to start the inward nine which got him to within two shots of the leader before mistakes at each of the next two holes saw him slip to level par.
His par save at the 16th was undeniably vintage Woods, although he admitted after his round that he had hurt his arm while playing his second shot from next to a tree – catching the trunk on his follow-through and letting go of the club on impact.
But he managed to thread his ball through a narrow gap in the woods and chase it up close to the green, from where he pitched to a couple of feet and tapped in to remain level for the day.
Woods then almost found the hole with a near-perfect high fade with a five-iron at the 17th to leave another tap-in for birdie, and he two-putted from long range on the final green to stay in a tie for eighth.
“It was really brutal out there,” said Woods, who is making only the fourth start of his latest comeback from injury after playing only three competitive rounds in 2017. “We as a group got fooled a lot today. Into the wind it felt like you just hit walls and downwind you couldn’t pick an angle.
“I don’t 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. It was just a tough day all around.
“But I feel like I’m pleased with every aspect of my game. I drove it well, I hit a lot of good iron shots today and I had some good speed on the putts. The greens are a little bit grainy and I hit a lot of good ones, and I thought I really did well overall.”
Woods was visibly in pain after his arm hit the tree on his follow-through at the 16th, but he defended his decision to go for the shot and played down initial fears that he had injured his hand.
He said: “The hand is fine, I didn’t hit my hand. My forearm hit the tree a little bit. I tried to warn all the people there and move them out of the way because if I pulled back on that at all and tried to really use my hands and flight that ball down, and if that club catches and breaks, it’s going to be right over there. I was worried about that.
“Once they got cleared out I figured I could put some speed into this thing and I was going to feel it. But I pulled it off.”
It was also a solid day for a trio of Englishmen, with Justin Rose, Paul Casey and 2012 champion Luke Donald all matching the 70 of Woods, as did Sergio Garcia just four weeks ahead of the defence of his Masters crown at Augusta National.