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GOLF

Tiger Woods is three back after a 68

Woods makes four birdies in a row on the back nine at Bay Hill. Jason Gore leads after a 65.

March 27, 2009|Josh Robbins

ORLANDO, FLA. — Tiger Woods spent his first nine holes Thursday afternoon at the Arnold Palmer Invitational still shaking off rust from his eight-month absence from competitive golf.

Then Woods reminded everyone why he has won 14 professional majors.

Playing before swarming crowds that came to Bay Hill largely to see him and playing partner Padraig Harrington, Woods overcame poor ball-striking to record four straight birdies on the back nine to shoot a two-under-par 68.

"I didn't hit the ball particularly well today," Woods said. "I just kind of held it together and that's a good thing. It's a good sign."

Woods has tried to rebuild his game ever since he returned to the PGA Tour on Feb. 25. After Thursday's first round, he felt encouraged because his short game carried him while his accuracy off the tee and on the fairways failed him.

And Woods will sit in a strong position when he begins his second round this morning on the 10th tee. Woods sits three shots behind leader Jason Gore, who shot a five-under 65.

Woods' Thursday started well enough. Fans packed the bleachers on the driving range to watch him warm up, and by the time he reached the first tee, spectators had lined up all the way down the fairway, in some places five people deep. He rewarded them by holing a wedge shot from 33 yards out for birdie.

"Typical Tiger!" someone shouted.

But fans soon saw atypical Tiger.

Woods landed his drive on No. 6 in the water. He cursed. He teed off once again and sent the shot into the right rough. When he finally reached his ball, he slammed his driver flush against his bag and wound up with a double bogey.

"The first two tournaments I didn't have it because I was hitting it so well," Woods said of his frustration. "Today, I was not hitting it well, and I had to scramble and grind it out and manage to score."

Woods came to a turning point on the par-four ninth hole. After his first two shots, he found himself in the rough 85 feet from the pin, and he looked like he could bogey the hole. But he put his approach to 13 feet and then sank the putt to save par.

Woods kept that momentum going on the back nine, recording birdies on 11, 12, 13 and 14.

Harrington and Woods' other playing partner, Mark Wilson, felt the electricity.

"The 'Tiger is back!' comment was probably the most popular comment I heard out there today," Wilson said.

Woods and Harrington have combined to win five of the last six majors, but Harrington didn't match Woods on Thursday. The Irishman finished with an even-par 70.

Jeff Overton and former tournament champion Tim Herron shot four-under 66s and trail Gore by one shot. A group of six players -- including Wilson -- shot 67s.

No one, however, has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational as often as Woods. He won five times before, including last year. What fans didn't know back in 2008 was that Woods' left knee was hurting even then at Bay Hill.

"Playing golf is so much more enjoyable now than it was before," Woods said. "It just wasn't fun. The pain that I had to deal with day in and day out, that part wasn't."

The fun returned Thursday -- for him and for the fans.

After Woods finished his round and spoke to the media, he walked from the 18th hole to his waiting SUV in the players' parking lot. A guy in a car passing by yelled, "Hey, Tiger, how about a shoe?"

The way Woods played Thursday showed he'd rather give fans a victory.

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jrobbins@orlandosentinel.com.

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