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Tiger plays rust-free until end; Furyk leads

Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Woods finished the first round with a 3-under 69.

THOUSAND OAKS, California (AP) — Tiger Woods had to take inventory when he teed off in the Target World Challenge, things he rarely does at any golf tournament.

``We haven't done this in a while,'' he said, recounting a conversation with his caddie. ``Am I forgetting anything? Do we have enough tees, balls? Do we have 14 clubs? OK, we're all good.''

It had been 74 days since Woods last struck a competitive shot, a chip that he nearly holed in his last chance to avoid losing to Mike Weir in Sunday singles at the Presidents Cup. He has been raising money for his foundation and the Tiger Woods Learning Center, relaxing at home and on his yacht with his family, doing promotional work with Nike.

Back to the golf, it wasn't all bad.

Woods birdied the first two holes, saved par three times with putts between 6 and 10 feet, and was on his way to a comfortable lead at Sherwood Country Club until he forgot one thing: how to finish.

``Hit a bad tee shot, pulled my second shot just a touch and made 6,'' Woods said of his double bogey on the 18th hole, sending him to a 69 and in a pack of four players who were one shot behind Jim Furyk.

This is the final tournament of the silly season, the final week of golf for 2007. It's a money-grab for the 16 players at Sherwood competing for $5.75 million. It was competitive, although meaningless.

But with one round, Thursday was another example of what the PGA Tour has to contend with in Woods.

He looked fairly sharp for someone coming off the longest unforced break of his career, mixing up the trajectory of tee shots and iron shots depending on what the hole required. The rust came in his short game, especially two simple pitches that he hit poorly enough to cost him easy chances at birdie on two par 5s on the back nine.

``It could have realistically been 7-under par without being all that stressed out,'' Woods said.

Stress is a rare commodity - or should be - at the Target World Challenge. Far more prevalent is the rust, especially for those who have not played much golf in the last month or so.

Furyk hasn't played since he traveled from South Korea to Bermuda for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf on Oct. 17, passing up a trip to South Africa for the Nedbank Challenge because he didn't want a long trip to affect nagging neck injuries.

A shaky tee shot on the opening hole, and a bogey at No. 10, was as bad as it got.

Furyk was steady as ever, a pleasant surprise, and a birdie on the final hole eventually put him in the lead at 68. It was the third time he has held at least a share of the first-round lead at the Target World Challenge, a tournament he has yet to win.

``I've worked pretty hard the last few weeks to get my game in shape, so it was nice to come out and knock some rust off,'' Furyk said. ``Hopefully, I'll keep improving and feel more comfortable with my game.''

Joining Woods at 69 was Masters champion Zach Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Rory Sabbatini, three guys who have at least been playing some golf. Johnson was at the Merrill Lynch Shootout last week, Sabbatini was in Australia, Stenson has been all over the map.

For the Swede who lives in Dubai, there is no offseason.

He was in Spain for the Volvo Masters. The next week he was in Shanghai for the HSBC Champions. Then it was off to Japan for the Dunlop Phoenix, followed by a trip to South Africa for the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City.

Stenson now has a second home in Orlando, Fla., where he spent last week before flying to California. Then it's back to Florida, across another ocean to Hawaii for the PGA Tour opener, then to the Middle East to start his European Tour schedule.

``Air miles are not a problem at the moment,'' Stenson said.

But his tee shot on the 16th was a problem. He was at 5 under and figured to be in the lead until he pulled his tee shot left of the bunkers and into a water hazard. After taking his penalty drop, he chipped back into the fairway and made bogey.

``I've come back a little bit in form,'' Stenson said.

The only other players under par were British Open champion Padraig Harrington and Mark Calcavecchia, both at 71.

Steve Stricker, the back-to-back comeback player of the year on the PGA Tour, was among those at even par after a shaky time on the greens. Stricker also hasn't played since the Presidents Cup, taking a quick trip to the TPC Sawgrass last week to get ready.

He hit the ball fine, but when his 30-foot birdie on the third hole raced 4 feet by, he walked off the green with wide eyes.

``We don't have greens this fast in Wisconsin,'' he said, ``unless they've got ice.''

But it's a good week for Stricker, who has come to Sherwood the last two years to make some Christmas cash in the pro-am. He still wasn't sure he would be eligible, even as his world ranking climbed into the top 10 and settled as high as No. 4. It has become a running joke for Stricker whenever someone mentioned he got to stay all four days this year.

``This is better than the pro-am,'' he said, walking off the seventh green. But as he motioned toward Woods, who couldn't seem to miss a putt or a shot, Stricker added with a smile, ``I'm starting to wonder why I even came.''

Woods has won his tournament three times in the six years it has been at Sherwood, and he was off to a good start.

``I was surprised at how quickly I got into the flow of the round. It basically took a hole-and-a-half,'' Woods said. ``Long layoffs, sometimes it takes you three, four, five holes before you feel comfortable.''

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