Woods inching closer to full strength

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The message now is not the same one he expressed more than three months ago when he returned to competitive golf at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Perhaps that is because Tiger Woods is not one to suggest there is any weakness in his game. Or maybe he just believed that, given that he was finally feeling good again, his game would return to the same level as when he left for an eight-month forced vacation due to knee surgery.

Woods is certainly not far off. Not when he has five top-10 finishes in five stroke-play events, including a victory.

But there was the troubling number of fairways missed, and the missed opportunities at the Quail Hollow Championship and the Players Championship, both of which saw uncharacteristically lackluster Sundays and left more questions than answers. Woods didn't crack the top 40 in driving accuracy or greens in regulation at either tournament.

"It's taken a lot longer than I thought it would," Woods said Thursday after an opening-round 69 at the Memorial Tournament left him five shots behind leader Luke Donald.

When he returned in Tucson, Ariz., at the end of February, Woods said nothing had changed as far his goals in entering tournaments. "It's to win. That's my intent, to go in there and win."

He said his surgically repaired left knee was stronger than ever and it was nice to swing pain-free. Woods also stated that it was simply a matter of getting back into the competitive flow again.

But at recent tournaments, Woods has admitted that his distance off the tee is not the same and that he only was able to begin practicing after tournament rounds at the Masters -- and there it was just once. He revealed he has been protective of his knee.

"Had to be that way," said the world's No. 1 player, who has won 14 major championship and 66 PGA Tour events. "Worst thing you can do is stretch out the ligament right away. The surgery would have been all for naught. That's one of the reasons it takes most athletes a lot longer to come back. You just don't want to stretch out that ligament.

"That's one of the reasons I haven't been able to hit balls as far as I normally do, but that's coming. Each week, I'm able to hit it a little bit longer. It's great. Just a little longer before I'm able to get all of that back."

Woods, who won four of his six starts in 2008, including the U.S. Open, certainly took a big step in that direction Thursday at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

The 69 was probably the highest score he could have shot. Woods birdied just one of the four par-5s, had a three-putt bogey, and also bogeyed the 18th hole after missing his only fairway of the day.

That's right, Woods missed just a single fairway.

Had he been able to find the short grass at the par-4 18th hole, he would have hit every fairway in a round for the first time since the second round of the 2003 Bay Hill Invitational.

As it was, hitting 13 in a row was the most since the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool -- where he primarily hit irons off the tee.

"The swing is starting to come around," Woods said. "I'm starting to feel good now. It's been a long time. I'm starting to get my power back. Everything is starting to kind of come around now."

Although Muirfield Village has some wide fairways, the fact that Woods was in all but one of them was still significant, especially when you consider his driving stats this year. Coming into the Memorial, he ranked 145th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy at 56.8 percent.

But he ended the first round tied for first in fairways. He also hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 29 putts. His 69 put him in a tie for ninth, five strokes behind Donald, who tied a tournament record with an opening 64.

Of course there's been lots of consternation over all of this, as observers have watched wayward drives and uncharacteristic mistakes from Woods.

"His scoring is pretty good," said tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who played with Woods during Wednesday's skins game exhibition. "He's won once. And finished in the top 10 every other time or something. That's really terrible, isn't it? It's a terrible comeback."

Then Nicklaus turned serious.

"If you look at his golf swing, I don't think he moves out of the way of the ball like he used to. I think that's probably protective, and it's probably a good move on his part. That's probably on purpose. He's probably adjusted his swing to fit that.

"He's such a good player. He's so good around the greens. His iron game is so good that even if he's not playing well, he's going to score well."

Woods said he made an adjustment with his driver, going from 9.5 degrees of loft to 10 degrees, feeling it will help him get the ball in the air better.

"I've seen it coming together for the last month or so," Woods said. "It's just that unfortunately it's one of those things where I would do it sporadically, because it's coming. It just needs to be a little more consistent. Today I did it all day."

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