Posted by Sabrina B. @gametimegirl
Not to suggest expectations were lowered forÂ Tiger Woods on Thursday at theÂ Chevron World Challenge, but when he made his third birdie on the front nine, the standard-bearer for Woodsâ€™s group reached for a red 3 and found none.
There was no dearth of red numbers on Woodsâ€™s scorecard. He birdied five of his first 10 holes at Sherwood Country Club on his way to a seven-under-par 65. That was good for a one-stroke lead over Rory McIlory and Graeme McDowell in an 18-man event in which all the players are in the worldâ€™s top 50.
The only golfers among the top 12 who were not here were No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood, third-ranked Martin Kaymer, who withdrew after winning the European money title in Dubai, and No. 4Â Phil Mickelson.
â€œNot too often do I say I shot 65, and I only made one putt,â€ Woods said. â€œIt was a good ball-striking day.â€
Woods was on his way to his best competitive round since he shot a 62 in September 2009 until he made a bogey on the last hole after a terrible drive. It was one of the few loose shots hit by Woods on a day in which he hit every green in regulation on the front side and struck the ball with a clarity of purpose that was missing most of 2010.
â€œI was pretty impressed with what he was doing out there,â€ said Woodsâ€™s playing partner, Steve Stricker, who added, â€œHe striped it all day long.â€
Woods, 35, is the four-time champion of the event, which benefits his charity, the Tiger Woods Foundation. Although winless on the PGA Tour for the first time since he turned professional in 1996, Woodsâ€™s first-round score did not come out of nowhere.
In his previous competitive round, on the final day of last monthâ€™s Australian Masters, Woods played the final six holes in six under, for a round of 65.
Woods recently lost his No. 1 ranking, which he had held for 281 consecutive weeks, to Westwood. He can reclaim the top spot with a victory here and a third-place finish or worse by Westwood at a 12-man event this week in South Africa.
TheÂ world rankings operate on a two-year points cycle, so Westwood, should he fall from the top spot, would regain it next month. There is much talk that the 2011 season could have a handful of players jockeying for the top spot, as has been the case this year in womenâ€™s golf, with four players holding the No. 1 ranking.
â€œTiger has dominated for so long,â€ said sixth-rankedÂ Jim Furyk, who has three victories this year. â€œThere are guys like Mickelson and, you go down the list, the top 10, thereâ€™s a bunch of guys that would like to say that.â€
The run for No. 1 could end up being the same old conversation if Woods continues to strike the ball as well as he did Thursday, and can make a few more short putts. Two of his four birdies on the front nine came on missed eagle putts.
After the Players Championship in May, Woodsâ€™s swing coach, Hank Haney, resigned. Three months later, Woods began working with Sean Foley, whose clients include Sean Oâ€™Hair, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose.
Mahan, who played many practice rounds with Woods â€” before and after Woods began working with Foley â€” was not surprised at how well Woods has taken to Foleyâ€™s instruction.
â€œThe guyâ€™s No. 1 in the world and he works as hard as anybody, and he couldnâ€™t overcome a wrong theory,â€ Mahan said, alluding to Woodsâ€™s association with Haney.
Under Foleyâ€™s tutelage, Woods has changed his swing so that he has less weight shift and more rotation.
â€œAs I played throughout the summer, I kept trying to do the things that I was working on with Hank over the years, and it just wasnâ€™t working anymore,â€ Woods said. â€œAnd it got to the point where I just couldnâ€™t do it.
â€œItâ€™s kind of hard to try and play tournament-level golf, major championship golf, especially, when at the time I was struggling with which way the ball was going to go. Was it going to go right, or was it going to go left? Thatâ€™s not fun.â€
Woods missed the fairway to the right with his shots off the tee on the first, 10th and 18th holes but otherwise entertained his gallery with his pure ball-striking.
â€œHis shots,â€ Stricker said, â€œhave that sound back.â€
ByÂ KAREN CROUSE