Justin Rose leads at Bay Hill

Updated: March 21, 2013, 10:33 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tiger Woods got off to a solid start in defense of his Arnold Palmer Invitational title Thursday morning, shooting a 3-under-par 69 at the Bay Hill Club to put himself among the leaders during the first round.

Woods, the defending champion, who is trying for his eighth victory at this tournament, made an eagle, four birdies and three bogeys but continued the solid putting that was on display at the WGC-Cadillac Invitational, where two weeks ago he had a career-best 100 putts over 72 holes in a victory.

Woods trailed Justin Rose, who shot a 7-under 65.

John Huh had a chance to catch Rose late in the afternoon, but needing a birdie on the final hole, he found a fairway bunker on No. 9 and took bogey for a 67. John Rollins and Brad Fritsch were at 68.

"I played all right today. I didn't hit it my best, that's for sure," Woods said. "But I scored well. I took care of the par 5s, but I didn't birdie them the way I like to. I hit some bad shots but was fortunate to get the ball on the green and make a putt."

Woods played the par 5s in 5 under par -- he was 14 under on those holes last year. He hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation and had a respectable 28 putts.

A couple of early par-saving putts and a 12-footer for an eagle at the 16th hole (his seventh) got Woods to 3 under before consecutive bogeys at the 17th and 18th holes. He then made birdies at the fourth, fifth and sixth holes before missing the green at the par-3 seventh and failing to get up and down.

Woods was playing for the first time since winning his 17th World Golf Championship event and 76th PGA Tour title two weeks ago at Doral.

A victory at Bay Hill would move Woods to No. 1 in the world for the first time since Oct. 31, 2010 -- when he dropped from the top spot for the first time in more than five years. No. 1 Rory McIlroy is not playing at Bay Hill.

Woods tees off at 12:45 p.m. ET Friday with Rose and Ernie Els, who shot a 75 and is bothered by a hip injury.

Rose put on a clinic with the putter and ran off four straight birdies late in his round to reach 7 under.

Rose began to work hard on his putting after the U.S. Open last summer, and he's had some decent rounds. At Medinah in September, he knocked in a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole against Phil Mickelson, in effect the difference in Europe winning the Ryder Cup.

"I dedicated myself at making a few changes and getting better at that part of the game," Rose said. "I've had some good days, no doubt. And today was probably the first real hot day I've had with the blade in a long, long time. We all know it's about consistency, and that's what I'm still working towards.

"It's just fun to know that I obviously can do it, and I enjoy a lot of confidence from that."

For all his birdies, it was crucial for Rose not to drop any shots after an early bogey on the 11th, and he did that with par saves on the 14th and 15th. Just as key was the 18th, where he played short of the water for his second shot from the rough and then made a 10-footer for par.

Also in the group at 69 with Woods were Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, Nick Watney, Sean O'Hair and Bill Haas, who bogeyed his last two holes.

Others weren't so fortunate. U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and two-time major champion Angel Cabrera each had 80. Masters champion Bubba Watson birdied three of his last four holes for a 74.

Brandt Snedeker, playing for the first time in five weeks because of a rib injury, took triple bogey on his 17th hole and had a 76. Snedeker's 5-iron on the 17th didn't quite clear the hazard where the sand meets the lake. Coming off his injury, he wasn't interested in trying to gouge it out, which he probably couldn't have done, anyway. At least he had his health at the end of the round.

"Encouraged," he said about his ribs.

Mickelson felt terrible about his swing, and it showed. Even so, the four-time major champion made an eagle putt on the 16th to reach 1 under, only to throw those shots away with three-putt bogeys on the last two holes.

"I feel terrible walking off the course," Mickelson said, right after he was randomly selected for a drug test.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com