Tiger Woods back in the hunt at British Open

Tiger Woods is just three shots behind the leader after the first round of the British Open. Woods is playing in only his second tournament since back surgery.

By , Associated Press

Playing in his first major championship since back surgery, Tiger Woods got off to a shaky start Thursday in the British Open with bogeys at the first two holes.

Then he settled down, looking more like the player who romped to victory the last time golf's oldest major was held at Royal Liverpool.

There were plenty of red numbers on a day made for going low — warm and sunny with only a slight breeze off the Irish Sea. Woods was among them, pushing his score to 3 under with five birdies on the back side through 18 holes.

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As of 10 a.m. Eastern time, Rory McIlroy leads at 6 under after the first round. 

Brooks Koepka, a 24-year-old American who began his pro career in Europe, and Italy's Edoardo Molinari both opened at 4-under 68 after matching birdies on the 18th hole. There was plenty of star power at the top of the leaderboard, with Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia at 4 under after the first round.

Sweden's Robert Karlsson, Marc Leishman of Australia and Japan's Koumei Oda were in the clubhouse at 69.

"I didn't play fantastic, but the course is out there to make some birdies on," said Karlsson, who teed off in the first group of the day at 6:25 a.m.

He described the breeze as "tricky," but acknowledged it wasn't much of a defense against those going out in the morning.

"I'll take this tricky," Karlsson said.

After his opening shot settled safely in the fairway, Woods ran into trouble when his next swing sent the ball into one of the treacherous pot bunkers. His wedge out of the sand scooted through the green and led to bogey. At No. 2, the three-time Open champion knocked a long putt about 6 feet past the hole, then missed the comebacker to take his score to 2 over.

Woods took advantage of the only par-5 on the front side for his first birdie. Then, the 14-time major winner rolled in a long putt from the fringe of the green at No. 11 for another, which seemed to give him the spark he needed to take advantage of the conditions.

For the early starters, it couldn't have been better day for scoring. Unlike 2006, when Woods won on dry, fiery course that made the grass more brown than green, Royal Liverpool was lush and relatively soft after intermittent rain on Wednesday.

Woods has gone six years without a major title and this is his first Grand Slam event of 2014, his season interrupted by back surgery on March 31. He missed the Masters for the first time, and then the U.S. Open, before returning three weeks ago at Congressional. He missed the cut by four shots, though he was happy that he felt no pain.

Woods' threesome included Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who is among four players with a shot at replacing Adam Scott at No. 1 in the world if he wins. The others are Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Jason Day.

Woods was No. 1 when he took three months off to heal his back. He now is seventh.

The last three Open champions have all been in their early 40s, but Koepka wants to end that streak.

"I hope someone in their 20s wins," he said. "I hope it's me."

The New York Times notes that Royal Liverpool course is challenging, but "the four par 5s, including the 16th and 18th holes, are still very inviting, and Rory McIlroy, for one, sees them all as true birdie opportunities."

“I think you’re going to have to be slightly aggressive off the tee and take some things on,” he said. “We’ve got four par 5s that are all reachable if you take a driver off the tee. Even 10 is probably reachable without having to hit driver. But the ball is not going to run too much on the fairways.”

That said, conditions can firm up quickly on a fast-draining links course. What is true Thursday morning might be false Sunday evening.

What is clear is that Royal Liverpool, even with a breeze, is not the longest or toughest test in the Open rotation. In some estimations, it would rank third in difficulty of the three Open courses in this coastal stretch of northwestern England, behind Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham and St. Annes.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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