MIAMI • Tiger Woods was a monster off the tee in his pomp and, while his back injuries have taken its toll, the former world No. 1 showed enough flashes of brilliance in the opening round of the Valspar Championship on Thursday to suggest that he would be in the mix at next month's Masters.
Woods gave himself a high grade after taming strong and gusty winds to trail first-round leader Corey Conners of Canada by three strokes after shooting a one-under par 70 on the challenging par-71 Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort.
There were glimpses of the verve and creativity that won him 14 Majors as he ended the day in joint eighth. It was, however, not so smooth sailing for some of the other big names, with four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy battling to a 74, while world No. 4 Jordan Spieth had five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch en route to a 76.
Woods, on the other hand, could hardly contain his smile, oozing satisfaction as he reflected on his performance in conditions he described as "brutal".
"I'm pleased with every aspect of my game," he told reporters.
"I drove it well, hit a lot of good iron shots and had some good speed on the putts. Overall, I thought I really did well today.
" This is the hardest of all the tests because the wind was all over the place. I don't know if people understand how hard it was out there.
"Into the wind, it felt we hit walls out there. The whole group got fooled a lot today."
Woods, who underwent a spinal fusion surgery last April, is making what is expected to be his penultimate appearance before the Masters, the first Major of the year in four weeks.
His short game was particularly impressive, almost holing a flop shot from the rough at the par-five first, which led to a tap-in birdie and set a positive tone for the round.
A huge gallery, rugged up on an unusually cool Florida afternoon, were treated to a vintage Tiger recovery shot at the par-four 16th.
After his drive bounced on a cart path and clattered deep into the trees, coming to rest on leaves and pine straw, Woods was concerned his club would snap against a nearby pine on his follow-through.
He warned spectators to stand back and, sure enough, he subsequently wrapped his iron around the trunk, with the club bending but not breaking, before flying out of his hand as his left arm also hit the tree.
The club landed harmlessly some five yards away, and the ball flew up close to the green, allowing for a fine par save.
"Today was a very good test of all the things that I'm trying to implement," Woods added.
"I felt like I really controlled the ball well for most of the day. I'm still working on it. I'm getting a little better, piece by piece."
Leader Conners, who failed to qualify for the Valspar earlier this week and made the field only as an alternate, mixed five birdies with a closing bogey for a 67 and the lead.
He headed Americans Nick Watney and Kelly Kraft, and South Korean Whee Kim by one stroke on a day when only seven players broke par.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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