PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods discovered how tough Innisbrook can be in a swirling wind, and he was up to the task.
Woods smacked his hands into an oak as he let loose of the club during a bold escape from the trees, came within inches of an ace on the next hole, and most importantly was among 27 players — just under 20 percent of the field — to break par Thursday in the Valspar Championship.
Canadian rookie Corey Conners, who got into the field as an alternate not long after he failed to get through Monday qualifying, didn’t make a bogey until his final hole at No. 9 and shot a 4-under 67.
That gave him a one-shot lead over Nick Watney, Whee Kim and Kelly Kraft. Only three other players, including former PGA champion Jimmy Walker broke 70.
Woods made five birdies to counter his mistakes in his round of 70, the first time he broke par in the opening round of a PGA Tour event since his 64 in the Wyndham Championship in August 2015 — just six tour events ago because of back surgeries.
This was his first time playing the Valspar Championship, and it got his attention.
“I enjoy when par is a good score. It’s a reward,” Woods said. “There are some tournaments when about four holes you don’t make a birdie, you feel like you’re behind. Today, made a couple of birdies, all of a sudden puts me fourth, fifth, right away. That’s how hard it is.”
It was like for everybody, especially Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
Spieth, who won at Innisbrook in a playoff in 2015, didn’t make a birdie after the par-5 opening hole and shot a 76. Only six other players had a higher score. Rory McIlroy, who like Woods was making his debut in this event, played in the morning and shot 74.
Henrik Stenson, who played with Spieth and Woods, also shot 74.
Morning or afternoon, it didn’t matter. There was a chill in the Florida air, and the wind made it feel colder. Ultimately, the wind swirling through the tree-lined fairways made it tough to get the ball close.
Innisbrook produced the highest average score for the opening round — 72.86 — of the 23 courses used this season.
Conners managed just fine, taking advantage of a tournament he wasn’t sure he would be playing. He went through Monday qualifying and shot 71, but moments after walking off the course, he was told he got in as an alternate.
“Kind of had a mindset of trying to take advantage of a good break, I guess,” he said.
Watney holed a bunker shot on the par-4 16th, made the turn and had an eagle on the first hole.