Woods grinds his way around Bay Hill

ORLANDO -- The process that is Tiger Woods' comeback continued Thursday with something he had yet to deal with since returning to the PGA Tour: smoke coming out of his ears.

If all the parts of his game seem to be coming together -- perhaps not all at once -- then the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational offered a chance to see where Woods stood when his own rage could have got the best of him.

Rest assured, Woods was in midseason form when it came to uttering the naughty words that sometimes spew from a golfer's lips at the height of frustration.

For one of the rare times, Woods appeared to mail it in on a hole as he chopped his way to a double-bogey 7, all the while muttering to himself. He managed to get hold of himself and finished with a 2-under-par 68 at the Bay Hill Club and is just 3 shots behind leader Jason Gore.

"The first two tournaments I didn't have it because I was hitting it so well; today I was not hitting it well," Woods said. "I had to scramble, I had to grind it out and manage a score. It's really not too hard to shoot under par when you're hitting a bunch of fairways and a bunch of greens like I did down at Doral. Today was different."

In several ways.

For one, Woods was paired with Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who won both major championships last year while Woods was on the mend from knee surgery.

The two have captured five of the past six majors, and while the topic did not come up, Woods surely could offer a few pointers on what it's like to try to win three straight major championships -- as he did in 2000 and then added a fourth the following year at the Masters.

It was also the first time that Woods and Rocco Mediate played in the same tournament since their epic U.S. Open playoff last June won by Woods. Mediate played in the group in front of Woods and matched him with a 68.

The forgotten man in the threesome was Mark Wilson, who combined with Woods and Harrington to win 17 major championships. Of course, Woods has 14 and Harrington three, with Wilson owning just two PGA Tour titles.

But he does have a history with Woods, making it to the finals of the U.S. Junior Amateur here at Bay Hill way back in 1992. Woods won that tournament three straight times.

"The electricity and the energy on that first tee is something else with him, all the people cheering," said Wilson, who scored the best of the group, shooting 67. "I definitely was a little nervous … He's a great guy to play with. He makes you feel at ease, and he was joking around out there and it was fun to see him get some birdies there and get the crowd into it."

That took awhile. After holing a lob shot from 33 yards at the first hole for a birdie, he didn't make another birdie until No. 11 -- and then rattled off four in a row. Woods hit just six of 14 fairways and only nine of 18 greens. But he needed just 24 putts -- the part of his game that had been missing at the Match Play and Doral.

The wheels appeared to break off when he knocked his tee shot in the water at the par-5 sixth hole -- where during Wednesday's pro-am he had striped one beautifully into the fairway.

Woods let go with a few choice words, then hit his third shot over the water, through the fairway and into the rough. One slammed driver into the golf bag, two gouged shots out of the rough and two putts later, Woods had his first double-bogey since the U.S. Open.

Harrington might have chuckled at the sight if he didn't have his own issues. Among them was what appeared to be an allergic reaction that had him either blowing his nose or trying not to rub his right eye out.

"I told myself for 12 holes, 'Don't touch it, don't touch it, don't touch it,'" Harrington said after finishing with an even-par 70. "It got a lot better after I started poking it."

Harrington's eye problem didn't keep him from noticing a different Woods from the one everyone was used to seeing. Surprisingly, Woods and Harrington -- who were paired during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage -- had not played in the same group since the final round of the 2004 Players Championship.

"He's not hitting the ball as hard as he used to, that's for sure," Harrington said. "He looks to be concentrating more on his rhythm … not really putting himself under too much pressure."

The pressure for Harrington seems to be getting his game to jell in time for the Masters. He has mostly struggled on the PGA Tour since winning the PGA Championship with a back-nine 32 at Oakland Hills, including two missed cuts in FedEx Cup playoff events last summer.

When he came to the U.S. in February, it was Harrington's plan to play four straight tournaments, take a three-week break in Ireland, then return for Bay Hill, Houston and the Masters.

But his form was so poor on the West Coast swing, including a first-round exit at the Accenture Match Play, that he altered his schedule to play two weeks ago at Doral, where he tied for 20th.

"We were talking about how his routine has changed," Woods said. "It's certainly much quicker than it has been in the past. Whatever he's doing is working. His work ethic is second to none out here. He really works hard. It was an amount of time before he had some success in major championships, and lo and behold, he's got three."

By this point, Woods had put things into perspective. He had posted a good score, despite not hitting the ball as well as he would have liked. It's part of the process, expletives and all.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.