PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods has won five PGA Tour events that he played for the first time.
Two of them no longer exist (Disney and BellSouth Classic in Atlanta). One of them he stopped playing 12 years ago (Tournament of Champions). He has been ineligible for another (World Golf Championship now in Mexico) the last four years.
The other is Las Vegas.
The next opportunity, which is rare in his predictable schedule, started Thursday at the Valspar Championship.
In his opening round he fired a 1-under 70, in a gaggle of more than 20 players in a tie for eighth place as he finished. He managed five birdies on the round.
Woods finished well ahead of his playing partners, as Henrik Stenson was 3-over and Jordan Spieth was 5-over.
What is Woods doing in the Tampa Bay area?
He wants to get his game ready for the Masters, and without being eligible for the two World Golf Championships in the spring, he needs places to play.
Woods has captivated golf audiences more than ever during his return from a fourth back surgery. He tied for 23rd at Torrey Pines (seven shots out of the lead) and finished 12th in the Honda Classic (eight shots behind the winner. In between, he missed the cut at Riviera.
“I only got two rounds in LA. I missed the cut there,” Woods said. “I felt really strong afterward. After playing Honda and really feeling good about it, I wanted to push myself in my practice sessions, which I did, pushed myself in the gym a little bit. And I can handle two weeks in a row.”
He also is playing Bay Hill next week, meaning four tournaments in five weeks, and then the Masters.
Innisbrook is not the typical Florida golf course. It has elevation, such as the par-5 fifth hole where the shot is blind if players go for the green in two. Water comes into play on only seven holes, none of the last two.
That’s what has attracted so many top players over the years. Ernie Els once considered it the best tournament course in Florida. Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia have played over the years and returned for this one. Among the newcomers is Rory McIlroy, which gave the Valspar Championship a real shot in the arm when he announced he was going to play. And that was before Woods and Spieth signed up.
“It’s a great test,” Woods said. “With this wind blowing, it’s going to put a premium on really hitting it flush.”
Joining him for the opening two rounds were Spieth and Stenson, the last two British Open champions. Both have a lower scoring average than Woods when they have played together on the PGA Tour, and both have clear memories.
“It was a big thing to play with him,” Stenson said.
Stenson first played with Woods in the final round of the American Express Championship in 2005. Woods closed a 67 and wound up beating John Daly in a playoff. Stenson shot 68 and finished two shots behind.
“It was no point trying to get the crowd to stand off,” Stenson said. “He hit the shot, everyone is walking. You just got to deal with it.”
“I haven’t seen a whole lot of him the last few years since he’s been hurt and trying to come back,” Spieth said. “But we all hope for that Sunday afternoon pairing alongside all us young guys. We want that chance to be able to battle it out with him on Sunday. I know he wants that, too, to show us what he’s done to other people.
“Even if it’s not 2000 Tiger, it’s still Tiger on a Sunday,” he said. “And that’s something that would be an experience we haven’t had before.”
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