(Reuters) - Tiger Woods gave himself a high grade after taming strong and gusty winds to trail first round Canadian leader Corey Conners by three strokes at the Valspar Championship in Florida on Thursday.
Showing glimpses of the verve and creativity that brought him 14 major championships before a serious back injury, Woods carded a one-under-par 70 to end the day equal eighth at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida.
It was not such smooth sailing for some of the other big names, with Rory McIlroy battling to a 74 in his first round at the Copperhead course, while 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.
“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 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, 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 the green, allowing for a fine par save.
“The hand’s fine,” Woods reported.
“I didn’t hit my hand. My forearm hit the tree a little bit. I tried to warn all the people. Once they got cleared out I figured I could put some speed into the thing. I was going to feel it but I pulled it off.”
Leader Conners, who failed to qualify for the Valspar earlier this week and only made the field as an alternate, mixed five birdies with a closing bogey for the lead.
“This golf course is very difficult but I think it sets up well for my game,” said the PGA Tour rookie. 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.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ian Ransom