Tournament host Tiger Woods fired a seven-under par 65 at the World Challenge on Thursday as he bids to cap a tough year with a morale-building victory.
Woods, whose travails this year on and off the golf course have been well documented, birdied six of his first 11 holes and moved as low as eight-under before a bogey at the 18th, where he was in the trees off the tee.
Despite that blip, Woods still found himself in sole possession of a tournament lead for the first time since he won last year’s Australian Masters, and for the first time in the US since the midpoint of last year’s US PGA Tour Championship.
“I played good today,” said Woods, who hit all but two greens in regulation and putted for eagle four times. “I really striped it, hit a lot of good shots. It’s not too often you can say I shot 65 and only made one putt, but that’s kind of what I did today. I only made one putt and it was on nine. The rest were either two-putts or kick-ins. It was a good ball-striking day.”
Woods was one stroke in front of US Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy and McDowell, the Northern Ireland compatriots who were paired to great effect in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory, played together at Sherwood Country Club west of Los Angeles.
McDowell went as low as seven-under before a bogey at the par-four 18th saw him finish on 66.
“A lot of birdies out there between us,” McDowell said. “It was just perfect scoring conditions. The greens here are unbelievable. You just have to get the ball rolling, and if it’s on line it’s going in.”
McDowell finished runner-up to Jim Furyk here last year. Both Furyk — a US player of the year candidate — and McDowell credited their solid showing in this unofficial event with kickstarting outstanding seasons this year.
Woods, who has fallen from his perch atop the world rankings and finished the season without a US PGA Tour title for the first time since he turned pro, is hoping a good performance here will -provide a similar boost for next year.
“If you play well, it does give you a shot of confidence,” he said. “I’ve played well in this event, I’ve won it a few times, and I’ve gone on to get off to quick starts the following year.”
At this time last year, he was in self-imposed exile as revelations of marital infidelity made headlines.
The scandal eventually ended his marriage, and in his abbreviated season this year, Woods also struggled to get to grips with swing changes made with Canadian coach Sean Foley.
His only other appearance atop a leaderboard this year was a share of the first-round lead at The Barclays.
Woods’ score on Thursday was his best in relation to par this season. He had carded six-under 65s in three other events — The Barclays, Deutsche Bank Championship and most recently last month in a storming final round of the Australian Masters.
“I was putting together streaks of holes earlier — two, three, four, five holes of this — and then I’d lose it for a little bit,” Woods said. “Eventually I needed to get a full round and then eventually a full tournament. Today was a full round, so that’s a good start.”
Woods said he was particularly encouraged by his ability to regroup after a poor shot, such as a tee shot right on 10 where he still birdied.
“I hit a couple loose shots during the middle part of the round,” he said. “I hit a bad shot on 10, lost it a little bit there at 12, but I fixed it and I got it right back. That’s something that earlier when I was first working with Sean I couldn’t do. But now I know what the fixes are.”
Woods will play on Friday with McIlroy, while McDowell will be paired with American Dustin Johnson, who was joined on three-under 69 by former British Open champion Stewart Cink.
There was no doubt, however, that all eyes were on Woods.
“Obviously the host, he’s in good form,” McDowell said. “He has been looking like he’s starting to play well the last couple months since the Ryder Cup ... great to see him up there.”
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