Players Championship
Players Championship
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Tiger looks human again at Sawgrass

Tiger Woods' opening tee shot was headed for a thick strand of pine trees when he muttered through clenched teeth, "Get in the rough."

That's the best he could hope for in the first round of The Players Championship.

Golf's most dominant player hardly looked the part Thursday until the end, when his wedge to the island-green 17th descended from gray skies and dropped next to the hole for a tap-in birdie that brought him back to even par.

The rest of the round, Woods was searching for a swing that only four days ago was flawless in an 11-stroke victory at Bay Hill.

"I never did find it," he said after a 72 that left him four strokes behind the early leaders, but still very much in the picture. "I'll try to find it on the range."

Woods looked unbeatable coming into TPC at Sawgrass, having won three times in the four tournaments he played since his return from knee surgery.

But golf doesn't offer guarantees to anyone.

Woods had a reliable swing at Bay Hill, where he won despite a bout of food poisoning. He was trying to invent one at Sawgrass.

Caddie Steve Williams had to tend the flag on three putts, which is more than he did all weekend at Bay Hill when Woods hit his irons close to the hole.

Despite some shaky shots, Woods left the course with a smile. His round of 72 could have easily been a 77 or worse.

"I just tried to get it back to even par," Woods said.

It wasn't easy.

A short game unmatched on the PGA Tour saved him time and again. Woods went through a five-hole stretch on the front nine where he could have easily bogeyed them all, but instead got through at only 2 over.

His 2-iron on No. 6 hopped into a shaggy area surrounding a steep bunker, forcing Woods to awkwardly plant his left foot at the top of the knoll. He blasted a wedge over a tall pine to 18 feet, a shot he probably couldn't have tried before knee surgery.

"Then when I did hit a good drive, on No. 7, it kicked dead left," he said, moaning.

No matter. With another awkward stance, Woods laid up 30 yards short of the green and then pitched to 4 feet to save another par.

Ditto for the par-3 eighth, despite his ball being buried in thick grass where players exited the green. He chopped out to 4 feet for another par.

"His chipping really saved him," Dan Forsman said. "He was just unflappable."

Woods pieced his round together with par putts of 10 feet on the 10th and 13th, and he was on his way to a round over par when he missed another fairway on No. 14 and chipped some 20 feet past the hole.

He rallied with another great chip from gnarly rough on the par-5 16th, the ball trickling down the slope to 3 feet, followed by his wedge to the island green.

What were the swing problems?

"I was stuck, I was steep, it was too shallow, it was too thin," he said. "I could never feel the arc of the path. I wasn't hitting the ball as clean as I had been."

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