Tiger Woods hits from a bunker on the second fairway...

Tiger Woods hits from a bunker on the second fairway during first round play in the Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. (Aug. 4, 2011) Credit: AP

AKRON, Ohio -- Walking from the fourth green to the fifth tee Thursday, Darren Clarke, the reigning British Open champion but clearly the second banana in this twosome, said, "I'm enjoying the show, like everyone else."

And that was before Tiger Woods really got going. Returning off leg injuries after nearly three months, Woods put on a show with inspired pars on the front nine and birdies on the back. There wasn't much rust on his game, which looked as healthy as he said his left knee and Achilles felt.

He shot 2-under-par 68 in the first round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational -- tied for 18th place, six shots behind leader Adam Scott, whose bag is being carried by Woods' fired caddie, Steve Williams.

"You know, I felt nervous out there on the first tee," Woods said, then added, "it felt awesome. As anybody who's been off and who's been injured [knows], the first time back, you're a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there's no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and just let it go, let it rip and see what happens."

His shots looked stronger and crisper than they had at the Masters in April. His putting was better than it had been in a long time. He sank a 17-footer for par 4 on No. 3 and a 20-footer for par 4 on No. 9 -- to which he gave a mini-fist pump. Then he made three birdies and a bogey on the back nine, which brought electricity to Firestone Country Club, where he has won seven times.

"He played lovely again. He played really, really nicely," said Clarke, a good friend of Woods whose only highlight was an eagle 2 on No. 8. "He's swinging better, putting better, everything. He thoroughly deserves his score, if not better."

Another close friend of Woods, Arjun Atwal, practiced with Woods Wednesday and could sense this coming. "You know what? He's hitting it really, really well," said Atwal, the former Clarke High and Nassau Community College star. "I hope his mind gets back to where he knows how he can play. Then it's going to be fun to watch."

The thing is, though, golf has changed during Woods' recent extended absences. More players are letting it rip, fearlessly. Scott said that he stepped hard on the gas pedal from the start to shoot 62. His fellow Australian, 23-year-old Jason Day, shot 7-under-par 63.

Woods was justifiably effusive about "hitting it just so much more flush," and added, "I got my power back." Still, nine golfers ranked ahead of him in driving distance Thursday, including Phil Mickelson, who shot 67.

The key could be Woods' putting. It was like old times on No. 16, when he raised his putter while his 31-foot putt was still rolling. It went in for a birdie.

He knows a ton about putting, as Atwal can attest. Woods gave his buddy a tip Wednesday. "He has seen me when I'm in a good position and he got me back to that. And I putted great today," Atwal said after he also shot 68.

Who knows what kind of show Woods can put on with his own hot putter? He was asked that, given how Thursday went, he is now thinking about winning. "I thought about winning," Woods said, "going in."

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