Bogey-free Tiger Woods tied for 8th
SYDNEY -- It was just his 11th competitive round of golf since returning from injury, so you do have to keep things in perspective, regardless of the score.
Still, you get the sense that Tiger Woods has been knocking down flagsticks every time he tees it up at his new home course in South Florida. There was that 62 at The Medalist several weeks ago, a course record on a tough track, and it stirred the imagination.
Woods, however, admitted that he was having difficulty getting his game from the driving range to the course, and especially to the course in competition, as limited as it might have been to this point. It's a common complaint for millions of everyday players, not necessarily one you expect to hear from a 14-time major champion.
Perhaps Thursday was the breakthrough for which Woods has searched since trying to put a new swing in place under the direction of coach Sean Foley.
The 68 he shot during the opening round of the Australian Open is the same number he shot for the final three rounds of the Frys.com Open last month in San Jose, but there was one big difference: no bogeys.
Woods kept a clean card at The Lakes Golf Club, something that has plagued him throughout a frustrating year that has included several starts and stops and not nearly enough positive momentum.
He didn't make as many birdies as he would have liked -- missing opportunities on two par-5s among the last five holes -- but he also played in a strong, gusty wind that plagued the afternoon starters. Woods was one of just two players among the top 10 who played late.
"I hit it really good today," said Woods, who is tied for eighth, three strokes back of the first-round leader, Australian Jarrod Lyle. "That was exactly how I've been hitting it at home; that's good. I was able to take it to the golf course, under these conditions, and hit all the shots. I missed a couple of greens here and there, but I missed them in the right spots."
He wasn't able to match U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, who closed with two birdies just as Woods was starting his round. Couples finished tied for fourth after shooting a 67.
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But Woods put himself in a good position, a place he has not been since the Masters in April.
"I believe in the guy forever," said Couples, whose pick of Woods for next week's Presidents Cup has been widely panned due to the former No. 1's lack of play and success. "I left a guy off the team [Keegan Bradley], a tough one. But I would never leave Tiger off the team. I just want him to get out there, have fun, hit the ball.
"Everyone wants to see him play. The guys who are picking on him he wants to show them that he's playing well, that he's back. I know he's worked very hard, he's played and practiced a lot. That's the great thing, but he's got to get on the course and make more putts and draw the ball and cut it and hit it in the wind. All those things."
And that was what Woods did Thursday. The afternoon brought the kind of conditions that might otherwise expose poor ball striking. Then again, as one of Woods' playing partners Jason Day said, the course's length of 6,900 yards meant fewer drivers and less chance to get into trouble. Day shot 69 but the other player in the group, Robert Allenby, carded a 75.
"I think it's just preparing and putting myself there consistently," Woods said before the tournament. "I haven't over the last couple of years been consistently in the hunt. I have at the Masters, but it's just a tournament and a golf course I know, but I haven't been able to play consistently day in and day out.
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"My bad rounds need to be under par, not over par. You need to turn a 73, 74 into a 68 or a 69. That's something I haven't done through this stretch, and I'm looking forward to being able to do that again."
For one round, Woods answered some of those questions. He didn't get frustrated when putts failed to drop early. He didn't make a bogey. He put himself in contention.
It's just one day, but for Woods, it is the kind of day he needed.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.