By Mark Lamport-Stokes
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - With his game markedly better than this time a year ago, tournament host Tiger Woods was happy enough after grinding out a two-under-par 70 in Thursday's opening round of the World Challenge.
Though Woods did not strike the ball as well as he did in Wednesday's pro-am competition, he sank several par putts from around 10 feet to remain in contention and ended an overcast day at Sherwood Country Club just three strokes off the lead.
The American world number three has triumphed five times in the elite invitational event and, at a hilly venue he knows better than anyone else in the 18-player field, he has a good opportunity to claim his fourth victory this year.
"I didn't hit it very good today, so it was nice to scrape out a good score," Woods told reporters after mixing three birdies with a lone bogey and a total of 29 putts to finish three behind compatriot Nick Watney.
"I made a few good par putts to keep the round going. I kept myself in the tournament. Could have easily shot myself out of the tournament but I kept myself in it."
Playing his first tournament since he tied for fourth at the PGA Tour-sanctioned CIMB Classic in Malaysia last month, Woods said he was not at all rusty with his game.
"I just felt a little off," the 36-year-old said. "Even warming up I didn't quite feel it was where I needed to have it. I had it last night when I was hitting golf balls, and that was nice.
"Unfortunately I just didn't have it like I did last night. I'll do some work here and hopefully shore it up for tomorrow."
ENDED TITLE DROUGHT
Since ending a frustrating two-year title drought with a one-shot victory at the World Challenge 12 months ago, Woods has triumphed three times on the PGA Tour and is excited about his prospects for 2013.
He has been working with coach Sean Foley on the fourth swing change of his professional career but, with all the fundamentals now bedded in, he is spending most of his time in practice just fine tuning.
"I've already made the big changes," said Woods who was World Challenge champion in 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011. "They're already in. It's the little tweaks here and there.
"But the thing I'm excited about is my short game is back. I'm chipping and putting well again, and that's something that's turned around since my ball striking was better.
"I didn't have to spend all the time hitting golf balls and making changes. I could chip and putt for hours, and it paid off for me at the end of the year."
For the moment, though, Woods has just three more rounds to go before wrapping up his 2012 campaign ere at Sherwood.
"This is ending my year, ending my season, and then I'll take a nice little break over the holidays and then gear back up for next year," he said.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)