Tiger takes first step back to contention

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Through all the trials and tribulations, the bouts with doubt and the corresponding hits to his confidence, Tiger Woods has been an infrequent tournament contender.

Think about the past year, since his return to golf after a self-imposed exile: Masters, U.S. Open, Chevron ... that's really it.

The game's most prolific winner and contender has rarely been part of the discussion when it comes to chasing tournament hardware.

Which is why Friday's 4-under-par 68 at the Bay Hill Club -- warts and all -- was significant on at least one level.

It gave him a chance heading into the weekend.

"We are trying to build towards the first major, and that's kind of how my game is headed towards," Woods said rather routinely after his second round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "It's building and it's coming."

With the Masters looming in just two weeks, that is not insignificant.

And it is a reminder of what was truly a remarkable accomplishment at Augusta National in 2010.

Having spent five months away from the game -- by his own accord, of course -- Woods made his debut at Augusta National with a world of eyes glaring at him. That he shot a first-round 68 -- his lowest opening day score ever at the Masters -- and managed to tie for fourth, in retrospect, was quite a feat.

Aside from the unofficial Chevron World Challenge, where he lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell, Woods has yet to better that finish.

When asked about this Friday, Woods downplayed it. "What helped last year is that I know the golf course," he said of Augusta National. "It's not like we go to a venue that we've never played before or something we had not seen for five or 10 years. We play it each and every year, and I was able to get a feel for it, go up there a couple of times, play practice rounds. That certainly helps."

Fair enough. Woods used his considerable course knowledge and a good bit of will at Augusta National to produce a result that all these months later looks so much more impressive.

In the meantime, he has switched swing coaches and endured more struggles than success.

A tie for 10th two weeks ago at the WGC-Cadillac Championship is his only top-10 of the season, and he was never in contention.

The closest he has been this year came at the Dubai Desert Classic, where he was four shots back of Rory McIlroy and in a tie for fifth place through two rounds. He got as close as one stroke back going into the final round, but shot 75 to tie for 20th.

Here, Woods managed to get within striking distance -- 10th place and six strokes behind Martin Laird, who has a 1-shot lead on Spencer Levin and K.J. Choi.

For Woods, it has come to this in his quest to get back to his winning ways.

"It's hard when you have to think so much," said Sean Foley, Woods' swing coach, who acknowledged that this has been a difficult process for the game's former No. 1 player.

"He's obviously got a very solid foundation," Foley said. "He's arguably the greatest golfer of all time. If he was to write a book on what he does mentally, it would probably be a lot better than a sports psychologist.

"I think with everything he went through, his divorce ... if you don't have clarity on that front, you come out to the golf course, you've got five hours to think about it. And if you're not confident with your swing -- I don't care who you are, you're playing PGA Tour courses in different conditions."

And the conditions Woods endured during Thursday's opening round were some of the toughest of the year. There were 14 players, including McDowell, who failed to break 80. Levin's 66 was remarkable considering the scoring average was 74.733.

For Woods, who hit just four fairways, his opening 73 was much better than the score looked. It was a windy day, with lots of trouble, and he managed to somehow limit the damage.

Friday, with five birdies and a bogey, he moved up the board when few were taking advantage of some tamer conditions. The 68 was his second-lowest score of the year on the PGA Tour, bettered only by his final round at Doral. He hit just six fairways but managed to hit 12 greens and needed just 26 putts -- often the part of the game that has held him back.

"I'm right there," Woods said. "Long weekend ahead of us with temperatures supposed to be getting up. ... I hit the ball probably as well as I did coming in yesterday all day today. And I left probably five putts short that were dead-center. So this could have been a pretty special round."

Foley said the 68 was "the highest he could have shot," and all of that bodes well.

But Foley again was preaching patience, even if everyone else expects quick results, with the questions sure to keep coming.

"I'm confident in the direction he is headed," Foley said. "And I have been. People go, 'When is he going to be Tiger Woods again?' That's just stupid. He is Tiger Woods. He's just struggling a bit.

"It's happened to everybody who plays sports. It's happened to Jordan, it happened to Gretzky, it happened to Nicklaus. It happened to Federer. They spoil you for so long that when they start doing things less than that way ... the problem is they were born a human being."

It is way too early to say Woods is back. But to get there, he needs to first get into contention. At least he has done that.

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