- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

DORAL, FLA. (AP) - Tiger Woods returned to stroke play for the first time since winning the U.S. Open, and so much of it felt familiar except for the leaderboard at Doral. His name was nowhere to be found Thursday at the CA Championship.

His wife, Elin, walked the back nine a month after giving birth to their son. It was her first time watching Woods play since Torrey Pines. Woods found himself more concerned with posting a score than beating one player, as was the case in match play two weeks ago.

The crowd was large, as usual for the Blue Monster, but shouts of “Welcome back!” were replaced by “Vamos, Tigre!”

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But as players from all around the globe kept pouring in birdies _ relative unknown players like Prayad Marksaeng and Jeev Milka Singh, followed by the familiar name of Phil Mickelson _ Woods was stuck in the middle of the pack of an 80-man field.

Mickelson chipped in three times, twice while finishing with three straight birdies, on his way to a 7-under 65 that gave him a four-way share of the lead with Retief Goosen, Marksaeng and Singh.

Woods made only three birdies _ two of them on par 5s _ and had to settle for a 71 that put him in a tie for 40th.

“I need to be a touch sharper,” said Woods, who has never finished out of the top 10 at Doral.

Mickelson has rarely been this excited. He can’t recall hitting the ball this long or having a short game this superb. Along with taking only eight putts on the back nine, he pounded tee shot so far that he had wedge left for his second shot on the par-5 first hole.

“It was just nice to see the ball go in the hole,” Mickelson said.

Woods didn’t seen much of that, twisting his body and buckling his knees when one putt after another failed to drop. It was his highest opening-round score in seven starts on the Blue Monster.

“It was not like I was playing poorly and shot 71,” Woods said. “I played well and just didn’t make any putts.”

The problem for him was just about everyone else did.

Singh ran off five birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn and was the first player to post a 65 on a balmy, breezy afternoon. Goosen, switching back to a conventional putter, ran off eight birdies in his round of 65. And the real surprise was Marksaeng, of Thailand, who birdied eight of his first 12 holes to join the leaders.

The group one shot behind included British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who didn’t feel as though he did much of anything right and had his best score of the year.

“I think I hit two fairways with my driver today. So it’s not like I played good golf or anything like that,” Harrington said. “It was all about the score.”

For Mickelson, it was mostly about his finish.

He hit into the water on No. 3 and took double bogey, found the water again on the par-3 fourth hole and chipped in for par. Mickelson was even through eight holes and was hopeful of a good back nine that would allow him a chance Friday to get into contention.

Three hours later, he already was there.

After trying to drive the 355-yard 16th hole, he pitched up to 3 feet for birdie. Then he chipped in from short of the green on the 17th, and made it three straight birdies by chipping in from about 25 feet on the 18th.

Woods didn’t have many close looks at birdie, picking up two of them on par 5s and the other one with a 7-iron that stopped a foot from the hole on the par-3 15th hole.

“Today I was trying to figure it out, how to get the ball in the hole a little bit faster than what I was doing,” Woods said.

Consider this a slow start. It’s one thing to be six shots behind after the opening round, quite another when 35 players separated him from the top of the leaderboard, a familiar position for Woods at Doral.

“You are going to have days like today,” Woods said. “And I would be obviously a little bit more disappointed, a little more frustrated, if I had not played well. I felt like I hit the ball well, hit putts well, but they just didn’t go in. I have to be a little bit sharper tomorrow. Hopefully, those putts go in tomorrow and the score will be a little different.”

Sean O’Hair began his round with consecutive eagles and was among the group at 67. Henrik Stenson played a shot from the mucky water on the third hole after taking off everything but his boxer shorts and his golf club. He shot a 69.

One of the biggest cheers Woods heard in his group came on the 16th hole when he took his driver out of the bag to go for the green. It was his first all-out swing _ he recoiled after contact _ and it didn’t seem to bother him, except for where the ball landed. It was right, in the rough, and Woods could get it no closer than 20 feet.

Mickelson is putting a DVD on the market on short-game instruction, and he put on an exhibition. Lefty is possibly the best player in golf inside 100 yards, and his chipping was deft as ever. Perhaps no chip-in was as significant as the fourth hole, especially coming off a double bogey on the previous hole and having to take another penalty stroke.

But it was the whole package that made Mickelson so excited. Even when he was even par through eight holes, he knew it was coming.

“I felt going into this tournament that I was playing as well as I ever have, as far as I can remember,” he said. “From 50 yards in, my short game has never been this good. And I’ve never driven the ball this long and this straight without the fear of a big miss. My iron play is better than it has been in quite some time. And I expect that to improve as the week goes on.

“I am excited about the next three rounds.”

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