The Blue Monster course at Doral in Florida appears to hold no fears for world number one Tiger Woods.
After finishing last year’s Ford Championship with rounds of 63 and 66 to beat Phil Mickelson by one Woods has started this year’s event with an eight-under-par 64 – and leads Mickelson by one.
“This guy Tiger seems to play well every day, every week,” said Mickelson, who shares second place with Rich Beem, Ryan Palmer, Mark Wilson and Colombian rookie Camilo Villegas.
“I’m just trying to keep pace. I’m trying to maybe have another shot at duelling out with him on Sunday. I’m glad that he’s playing well – I’ve got to do my part and stay with him.”
It was Woods’ lowest round of the year but asked if it was his best he recalled the fact he thrashed Stephen Ames by a record nine and eight in last week’s Accenture World Match Play in California.
“I played similar to this – at least for 10 holes – at La Costa,” he said. Woods went to the turn in 29 there, incredibly winning every hole on the front nine.
“I hit the ball well today. I hit a lot of good golf shots and it’s always nice to get back on smooth greens again. Made a few putts too, so that helps.
“I drove the ball really well today. Some of the things that I’ve been working on are starting to come together.
“If you look at it, boy, there’s been a lot of great players that have been up there in contention on this course. Just looking at that list of champions, it’s pretty impressive.”
Nobody has made a successful defence since Ray Floyd in 1981, but Woods added: “Hopefully I can go out and post another good number, because you have to. If you shoot even par you’re going to get run over here.”
The opening round was not totally to his satisfaction. He failed to birdie two of the par fives and was in the water on the second of them.
“I was saying a few things to myself, explaining to myself that my intelligence was not where it needed to be,” he commented with a smile.
That seemed to work. He birdied five of the next six holes to take over at the top from Mickelson and the others.
Earlier, Padraig Harrington holed out from a bunker with his last shot of the day to begin with a four under 68.
The Dubliner, who reached the quarter-finals of the match play despite struggling with his game, made up for three-putting the short fourth from only 18 feet with five birdies.
Harrington was playing with world number two Vijay Singh and last week’s runner-up Davis Love and they all shone. Love also returned a 68, while Singh finished birdie-eagle-birdie for a 67.
David Howell, Europe’s other quarter-finalist in San Diego, stood five under par with five to play but bogeyed the 14th after driving into a fairway bunker and dropped another shot on the last after finding the left-hand rough.
Mansfield’s Greg Owen came in with a two-under 70 and Nick Faldo, playing his first tournament in the States since the Masters last April, would have matched that but for bogeys at two of the last three holes.
Also on 72 are Ernie Els and Brian Davis, while Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell are one further back, McDowell after finishing bogey-double bogey.
Darren Clarke slumped to a 75 and then withdrew from the event citing a wrist injury.
The Ryder Cup star, who abandoned plans to play the Nissan Open in Los Angeles two weeks ago because his wife Heather was undergoing more treatment for cancer, had two birdies in his last five holes of the day, but also two bogeys and a double bogey.
Leading European is actually Orlando-based Swede Daniel Chopra, who lies joint seventh on six under.