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Tiger not awesome, but solid enough in return to competition

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- By the time he had finished warming up on the range, he was soaked.

Clean through his hat, through his skivvies, his pants and shirt. Especially his pants, which were so saturated, it looked like he was still home in Florida and fighting a severe case of, shall we say, swamp butt.

Tiger Woods was squarely under the hot lights of public scrutiny on Thursday at Firestone Country Club, playing his first full round since April, but he looked like he'd just dived into the Cuyahoga River.

By the time he teed off on the fourth hole, sweat was dripping off the bill of his cap, and he had to mop it dry with his hand, then wipe his palm dry in the grass of the tee box.

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Maybe it was a slight case of nerves, perhaps it was the unholy Ohio humidity, or merely the fact that an entire sport has cast its collective eyeballs in his direction yet again, watching to see he could still handle the heat.

Woods had the itch to play, and it had nothing to do with the wool Nike boxer shorts he seemed to be wearing.

"That first tee shot, I was pretty nervous," he said, wiping his index finger across his head and flinging a string of sweat to the ground. "It felt awesome."

Looked pretty good, too.

Admittedly it's a teeny sample size, the equivalent of the first minute of the opening round of a 15-round prize fight, but considering the layoff and headline-grabbing tumult in his personal and private life over the past few months, his 2-under 68 at the Bridgestone Invitational felt as welcome as a cool breeze.

"He played lovely," playing partner Darren Clarke said. "He hit a couple of rusty shots, but overall he thoroughly deserved his score, if not a little better. Pleased to see."

'He played lovely,' says Tiger's playing partner for the day, Darren Clarke. '... Pleased to see.' (Getty Images)  
'He played lovely,' says Tiger's playing partner for the day, Darren Clarke. '... Pleased to see.' (Getty Images)  
Clarke might as well have been speaking for the golf establishment in general, which must have exhaled, en masse for the most part, when Woods put together a solid round that ranked at least a B on the report card.

Woods is tied for 18th and stands a distant six shots behind leader Adam Scott, who ironically now employs former Woods bagman Steve Williams as his caddie, but he was downright thrilled with how far he was pounding the ball and how little pain he experienced in the tangle of surgical scars he calls his left leg.

And by little, he means zero.

"I guess this is how you guys feel," Woods cracked afterward, "walking around pain-free?"

Woods has been known to filter the truth at times to best suit his competitive advantage, but the evidence comprehensively suggested he wasn't just whistling in the graveyard here.

Woods was obliterating the ball at Firestone, averaging 301.6 yards off the tee to rank 10th in the field. It's been a while since he generated this kind of bat speed because he hasn't been able to fire through to his left side. In fact, his biggest issue was controlling his yardages and distances, because he kept hitting it farther than he expected.

Most of us can’t remotely relate, of course, to the problem of hitting shots too far. Woods was swinging freely and hammering it.

"I was hitting proper shots out there, and the distances I was hitting the golf ball," he said, excitedly. "I hadn't hit the ball like this. This was fun, to be able to hit the ball with that much of a flush feeling through the golf ball and speed I had."

Hint No. 2 that Woods was in fine fettle was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Unlike when he injured himself and withdrew after nine holes at the Players Championship in May, he easily kept up with Clarke and the caddies in his group.

There was no limping, no awkwardness in his gait, and when he had to invent a mega-slice from the rough on the 16th hole, he never cringed during an awkward follow-through. So, physically, it could not have gone better.

Woods admitted that he hadn’t really gone at the ball full-bore in practice, but he blew the carbon off the valves at times Thursday.

"As anybody who's been off and who's been injured, first time back, it's a little nervous to see what happens," he said. "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."

For once, the data won’t tell the whole story. Woods found five of 14 fairways, but missed a half-dozen by fewer than four or five steps. There were none of the cringe-inducing shots that scattered fans and had marshals moving gallery ropes like traffic cops.

That isn’t all that was absent. Woods' swing looked as balanced and natural as it has in months, perhaps all season. He wasn't lunging at balls, over-swinging in the tee box, dipping his head violently before impact or steering shots.

"I wasn't getting a full transfer of energy, so now I'm swinging easier," he said. "I am not even hitting it hard yet, and that's what's fun. I'm hitting it farther without any more effort."

Everybody has noticed. When Woods walked onto the range before the round, plenty of players gave him a glance.

"He's looked real good when I have seen him the last two days," Gary Woodland said. "His tempo has looked terrific."

At least as importantly, in terms of deportment, there was no blue language, no chucking of clubs or other issues that would make mothers cover the eyes and ears of their kids. In fact, perhaps it was due to being paired with old friend Clarke, but Woods' mood bordered on giddy.

Why not? This day has been a long time coming. Woods hadn’t completed 18 holes since the Masters, which seems like years ago. He's been out of the public consciousness for so long, he needed to remind everybody of what they were missing. Perhaps even including himself.

Woods made a couple of vintage par saves as he started the day with nine straight pars, then finally coaxed the ball into the holes on Nos. 10 and 11 for his first birdies since Augusta National. Woods had his old gamer back in the bag, the Scotty Cameron putter he used to win 13 majors and $100 million in earnings, tucked safely under ... a Nike headcover.

Clarke was the ideal playing partner. They took turns giving each other the needle, exchanging insults, talking about their kids and Clarke's victory last month at the British Open. They have known each other for more than a decade.

As they walked toward the scoring trailer behind the 18th green, Clarke pulled the scorecard he'd been keeping for Woods and said, "I’ll take a few more [shots] off there if you want," Woods said.

No need. He didn’t exactly torch Firestone, but he seemingly rekindled the flickering flame of his career.

That's enough to make everybody bust out in a stiff sweat.

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