Woods starts in the trees but fights back up the leaderboard

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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods has been proving the doubters wrong all of his life and here in Jacksonville yesterday this reformed character showed he has not yet given up on this particular personality trait.

A 70 equalled his best first round in in 14 years of competing in The Players Championship – and but for his only bogey of the day on the last he would have fared even more impressively. However frustrated Woods might have looked stepping off that 18th green, few had anticipated him faring so commendably.

Indeed, so many sceptics were already penning the world No 1's latest competitive obit when his drive off the first tee took its inexorable journey into trees off the first tee. Woods missed just his sixth professional cut in 14 years at Quail Hollow last week and the fear was he would do so again here. Woods has never been absent from two competitive weekends in a row but after the sex scandal which ruined his reputation, and supposedly his focus, this acute embarrassment seemed eminently possible.

As it was, Woods has built a satisfactory foundation from which to launch a challenge for his second Players crown. On a packed leaderboard, the 2001 champions is four shots behind the pacesetters, JB Holmes and Robert Allenby, who fired six-under 66s.

In truth, Woods was nowhere near his peerless best, with erratic driving still a concern, as exemplified on the final tee when pulling it into the water. But he showed the fight which had been so conspicuously lacking in North Carolina. He managed to save par from the trouble on the first and from there put on a display of traditional Tiger professionalism. For 16 holes he managed himself nicely and there were some notable moments of brilliance. Wood's two shots onto the par-five ninth were particularly memorable.

"I hit it solid today," he said afterwards. "It's a new week. I've only played six competitive rounds in five months. People have to be more realistic. I'm right in this."

True enough, but there are some impressive Englishmen in front of him, however. Lee Westwood and Luke Donald are lurking in the group on third on five-under and will undoubtedly be fancying their chances. Yet there was something of a reality bump for Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman won his first PGA Tour title last week with a remarkable last-round 62. Yesterday he was 11 shots worse and has it all to do to make the weekend on one-over.

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion, was happy to sign for his own 70 given how poorly he played. "I didn't have it today, but I can still get right back into the tournament," said the left-hander, who has a chance to go to world No 1 for the first time in his life on Sunday. For that to happen he has to win and Woods has to be outside the top five. Not probable but still possible.