Rude: Rare contention at Players for Tiger

Tiger Woods during the first round of the 2013 Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Tiger Woods during the first round of the 2013 Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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— In shooting 5-under-par 67, Tiger Woods improved upon his lowest first round at The Players by, remarkably, three strokes. But a stubbed chip shot at 18 prevented his first bogey-free round in 56 attempts at TPC Sawgrass and kept him from tying his low score here.

Woods put himself in a position to contend for only the third time in his 15 starts at the Players, one of the few tournaments that has confounded him. He hasn’t been in the mix since he won here in 2001, the year after he fell victim to Hal Sutton and the “Be the right club today” finish.

The 11th-hour hiccup dropped him into a tie for fourth, four shots behind the stunning, course-record-tying 63 by Roberto Castro, a second-year Tour player out of Georgia Tech playing his first round here.

“This is a tricky golf course,” Woods said when asked whether he is surprised he has never gone 18 sans bogey. “It doesn’t take much to make a bogey around here. I think that’s kind of what (architect) Pete (Dye) had intended, and I’m sure that most of the guys through their careers really haven’t had too many days that are spotless on their cards.”

His was clean until the 18th, where his club selection showed just how much the game has changed in recent years. Facing 200 yards to the hole after teeing off with a fairway wood, Woods hit what he called a “little 8-iron” approach that landed about pin high and rolled over the back into a collection area.

“Little” 8-iron shots from a couple of hundred yards out that go too far? The czars of golf have proposed a ban on anchoring putters, but it seems they perhaps took their eye off the ball considering how far it travels at the PGA Tour level.

That’s not all. Perhaps the U.S. Golf Association and R&A should take note of how far the longer clubs send the little sphere. On Thursday, Woods said his 3-wood shots went more than 300 yards and his 5-wood approached the 300 area.

“I haven’t hit the ball this far in a long time (because of) the heat and the wind,” said Woods, whose three victories this year have raised his career Tour total to 77. “The ball was going for miles and (the 7,215-yard course) played really, really short.”

It was a short shot, though, that cost him most. Facing a 30-foot, uphill, into-the-grain chip shot from behind the 18th green, Woods stubbed his 56-degree sand wedge into the turf and the ball traveled only a dozen yards, stopping just short of the putting surface.

Woods said he thought about putting his third shot but decided against because of too much grain. He also considered using a 4-iron but figured it “might chatter too much,” whatever that means. He ruled out a 60-degree wedge because it has too much bounce.

So he settled on the 56 in an effort to “shallow” out the shot. But Plan A didn’t work. “The grain snagged it,” Woods said.

That’s the TPC for you. It not only demands precision off the tee and into greens, it often leaves players with tricky pitches and chips. On Thursday, despite considerable rain recently, the course played fast in spots, particularly in the afternoon. And you can expect it to pick up pace.

“If they don’t touch it (with water), it’s going to get really tough by Saturday,” Woods said.

Woods didn’t have his best stuff Thursday, but he handled the TPC by making birdies on the four par 5s and birdieing Nos. 10 and 12 from six and five feet, respectively. His best chance for a seventh birdie was at No. 7, where he missed from four feet.

He rarely used his driver, which had a new look with an old element. He reverted to a former shaft, he said, because he’s healthy and able to generate speed of yore “to handle that shaft again.”

All told, he hit 10 fairways, 12 greens in regulation and took 24 putts.

“Hopefully I can play a little bit better than I did today,” Woods said. “I need to strike the ball a little better than I did. The key is that I missed all the shots in the correct spots and left myself some easier up-and-downs and took care of the par 5s.”

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