PALM HARBOR — Tiger Woods was no Corey Conners, but he played well enough to put himself right in the thick of things Thursday in the first round of the Valspar Championship.
Conners, a 26-year-old Canadian who was an alternate on Monday, shot 4-under 67 in his morning round on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course to take a one-shot lead over Whee Kim, Kelly Kraft and Nick Watney.
Woods, playing in his first Valspar Championship, grinded out 1-under 70 in his afternoon round and was just three shots off the lead, tied for eighth with 19 others. He carded five birdies and four bogeys on a blustery, chilly day. Conditions weren't supposed to be much better when Woods tees off at 7:56 a.m. Friday, which was just fine with him.
"I enjoy tournaments where par is a good score. It's a reward,'' Woods said. "There are some tournaments where you play four holes and if you don't have a birdie, you feel you are behind. (Thursday) you get a couple birdies and you're fourth or fifth. I like that type of challenge.''
Other notables near the top of the leaderboard included Keegan Bradley at 2 under, and defending Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose among those at 1 under.
Woods' playing partners, Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, struggled. Spieth, the 2015 Valspar Championship winner and three-time major champion, shot 5-over 76 and was two shots from last place. Stenson shot 3 over.
But most eyes in the jam-packed crowd were on Woods. He started his day with birdie on the par-5 first hole after a nice flop shot from the fringe. On the par-3 fourth, the wind kicked up and Woods sailed his tee shot into the crowd behind the green. That resulted in his first bogey.
It was a cool day for Baylin Parra, a 13-year-old from Palm Harbor Middle School. Not only did she get to skip school, she got to hang out with Tiger Woods. Well, sort of. @ValsparChamp @TigerWoods @TomWJones #ValsparChampionship @TB_Times @Innisbrook https://t.co/OzIqXmfIrT— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 9, 2018
A birdie on the par-3 eighth hole was followed by bogey on the ninth when his approach shot sailed right and found the bunker. Woods recovered on the 10th and 11th holes with two straight birdies that put him at 2 under.
That was the lowest he got.
Bogeys on the 12th and 13th dropped him back to par.
His most impressive hole was the always difficult par-4 16th. His iron off the tee drifted into the trees left of the fairway. His ball landed next to a tree that was in a position to impede his follow through. Woods cleared the crowd from his path, then took a full swing that caused his left forearm and hand to hit the tree and send his club flying.
The ball exited cleanly and settled into the rough on the right front of the green. A chip to tap-in range and he was off the hole with par.
"I tried to warn all the people there to stay out of the way,'' Woods said of his second shot. "If I pulled back on that at all and tried to use my hands to flight the ball down and that club catches and breaks, it could fly into the crowd. I had to worry about that.
"Once (the people) were cleared out, I figured I could put some speed into this thing and I was going to feel it. But I pulled it off.''
Unscathed, Woods put his 5-iron on the par-3 17th inches from the cup for a gimme birdie. He parred his final hole for his first opening-round score under par in four tournaments this season.
"(Thursday) was tough, man,'' Woods said. "I don't know if these people understand how hard it was out there. Trying to pull a club with the wind blowing the way it was … the wind was up and down. The whole group got fooled all day, which is rare.''
One of the few people not fooled much was Conners. He made four birdies and just one bogey, which came on the 18th hole. He had never led a PGA Tour event in 20 previous career starts.
"I really feel good about my game,'' said Conners, who got in the tournament when Kyle Stanley withdrew. "I was really happy to have gotten in the field and definitely feel like I'm due for a good week.''
Conners will likely have the luxury of playing in front of a sparse crowd when he tees off at 1:30 p.m. today on the 10th tee. Most spectators will arrive early to get a glance of Woods.
Woods was loose and chatty in his Wednesday pro-am round, but the crowd got to see his tournament face Thursday as he tried to figure out the Copperhead Course.
"It's a really, really good grind out here,'' Woods said.
Contact Rodney Page at [email protected] Follow @rodneyhometeam.