- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- You would be nit-picking to find fault with Tiger Woods' competitive return to golf, a 2-under-par 68 on Thursday at Firestone Country Club that saw him walk without a limp and hit shots with authority that surprised even himself.
Woods made his first appearance on the PGA Tour since he withdrew from the Players Championship on May 12 with knee and Achilles injuries that he first suffered at the Masters.
"The amount of progress I made in my golf swing," Woods said when asked what he discovered about himself under the pressure of competition. "The amount of compression I had in the golf ball, the shots I was hitting.
"I was hitting proper shots out there, and the distances I was hitting the golf ball, I hadn't hit the ball like this. This was fun, to be able to hit the ball with that much flush feeling the through the ball and speed I had. It was pretty nice."
Woods is tied for 18th, six strokes behind Australian Adam Scott -- who is using Woods' former caddie, Steve Williams -- at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament Woods has won six times. He has seven victories overall at Firestone.
Williams was on the bag for all seven of Woods' wins at Firestone, including his 11-shot win in 2000 when Woods had a 61 in the second round and set the tournament record at 259.
"He didn't think it was a big deal to shoot 62," Scott said with a grin. "It was normal."
Although Woods suggested otherwise, winning would not seem to be the ultimate goal this week -- not after a 12-week layoff following the Players, not after sitting on the sideline in a walking boot and on crutches for a good period of time, not when you realize that his last full round of golf came at the Masters in April.
This was Woods' eighth worldwide start of the year, and he had suffered through enough issues in his game during those tournaments that it was apparent he had more to overcome than injuries.
"I hadn't really gone at it until basically today, just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots," Woods said. "Today was just, let's go, let's go play, just put everything aside and let's go give it a go and try to post a low number."
Paired with his good friend, British Open champion Darren Clarke, Woods made nine straight pars to open his round, twice holing long putts for par, but twice missing relatively short ones for birdie. He made a 20-footer for par at the ninth, then made consecutive birdies at the 10th and 11th holes.
His birdie at No. 10 was his first since the final round of the Masters, where Woods missed a short putt for eagle at the 15th hole and settled for a birdie.
The only bogey of the round came at the par-4 14th, where Woods hit his approach over the green -- Woods said distance control was an issue for him -- and failed to get up and down from a bunker.
But he cut a wood from around trees at the par-5 16th -- "I smoked it," he said -- to set up an indifferent wedge shot, but nonetheless holed the 30 footer for birdie.
He parred the last two holes, including getting up and down from an awkward stance near the 18th green.
"He played lovely," said Clarke, who did not, finishing tied for last with a 77. "He hit a lot of nice golf shots. I was pleased to see it. He swung well, putted well."
Woods hit just five fairways and 12 greens, but needed only 27 putts.
"I expect myself to be more prepared going into tomorrow," he said. "I've got the competitive feel now. I know what it feels like to get into the flow of the round, the rhythm of playing and walking, and just the flow of playing tournament golf, which is way different than zipping around in shorts and a cart."
It was much different than a year ago, when Woods opened the Bridgestone with a 74 and continued to struggle. He was second-to-last in a 78-player field, never broke par, and finished 30 strokes behind winner Hunter Mahan.
The result was shocking when you consider that Woods all but owned Firestone, having won here seven times and never finishing worse than fourth. Then again, his swing was in disarray, he was dealing with the off-course issues of children and divorce, and he admitted later that his mind was clearly not on the task.
A week later Woods began to work with Sean Foley at the PGA Championship, and they formalized the relationship a few weeks later. A playoff loss at the Chevron World Challenge in December seemed to signal a quick return to greatness in 2011 -- but it has not happened.
Aside from the Masters, where Woods stirred the memories with a front-nine 31 on Sunday to briefly tie for the lead, he has not contended late in a tournament this year. He flirted with contention at the Dubai tournament on the European Tour, but had lackluster results at long-time successful venues such as Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill. He was knocked out at the Accenture Match Play Championship after one round.
Although he showed signs of putting his swing back together at the Masters, any momentum built there was quickly disassembled due to the knee and Achilles injuries that forced him to withdraw from the Players Championship after nine holes and kept him from competing again until this week.
"It feels great," Woods said. "As anybody who's been off and who's been injured, first time back, it's a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there's no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and just let it go, let it rip and see what happens."
The conditions were so soft and calm that 39 players in the 78-man field broke par, a record number for any round in the 12 years this World Golf Championship has been played on Firestone South.
The scoring average was 69.63, the lowest since the opening round in 2001. Scott, who birdied four of his last six holes, had the lowest opening round ever at Firestone.
"Probably not what we're used to seeing around this course, so it was good to take advantage of that," Scott said.
Day went out early and posted a bogey-free round of 63, making birdie on the last hole. No one else from the morning group was better than a 66. And then it was Scott's turn in the afternoon. He thought 63 was a pretty low score for this South course, but then figured it was there for the taking with so many other scores in the 60s.
"I just feel like I need to get myself in these things from Thursday, show up and go, not show up and see how you get on the first nine," Scott said. "I feel like that's a good way for me to go because I'm hitting the ball well, and I feel really confident on the greens. It was green light and just attack."
Bob Harig is the golf writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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