Rookie Conners leads Valspar Championship, Woods continues strong play

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The cold, windy conditions in the first round of the Valspar Championship often required players to go to great lengths just to save par.

Tiger Woods did that on the Copperhead Course’s 16th hole after he pulled his long-iron tee shot and his ball came to rest next to a tree. Woods had to warn fans that the club’s shaft may snap after impact. It was his left arm that went crashing into the trunk instead.

“It didn’t feel very good,” he said.

There was a gain for his pain, though, as he was able to advance his ball near to the green and save par. It was part of a 1-under 70 that had Woods feeling fine as he left the course late Thursday. He’ll start the Valspar’s second round in eighth place, three shots behind PGA TOUR rookie Corey Conners.

This is Woods’ best post-round position of the season. He’s been inside the top 15 ever since the end of The Honda Classic’s second round. Woods proved that the form he displayed at PGA National is sustainable, and that his game could travel to an unfamiliar course. That skill will come in handy in the majors, where Woods can’t lean on experience.

“I’m getting a little better piece by piece,” Woods said. “This was a very good test of all the things I tried to hit.”

Woods played alongside Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth in one of Thursday’s featured groups, and beat them by four and six shots, respectively. They are scheduled to tee off at 7:56 a.m. Friday.

Par was important Thursday, but the key for Woods was making enough birdies to cover up his mistakes. His five birdies, including two apiece on the par-3s and par-5s, were the second-most in the field. He started the tournament with a tap-in birdie on the par-5 opening hole, but dropped back to even par after his tee shot at the par-3 fourth hole sailed over the gallery right of the green.

A bogey from a greenside bunker at No. 9 started a par-less stretch of six holes that featured three birdies and three bogeys. He returned to the red at the par-3 17th after nearly holing his 5-iron tee shot.

Woods hit half the greens Thursday and 7 of 13 fairways. Like The Honda Classic two weeks ago, he was pleased with the way he controlled his trajectory in the inconsistent wind. Innisbrook offers another variable to consider, as it’s the rare Florida course with steep elevation changes. And it’s somewhere he hasn’t played in more than two decades, since the unofficial JCPenney Classic in 1996. He doesn’t remember much from that team event, where he paired with Kelli Kuehne.

“That was a different era,” he said. The promising start to his latest act continued Thursday.

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