Tiger Woods' game on road to recovery

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- The old and improved Tiger Woods emerged from his bizarre golf fog Thursday at the PGA Championship where -- cross your fingers, TV rights fee holders -- he'll make more than a cameo appearance on the leaderboard.

He wasn't vintage Tiger. (Remember the good ol' days, when everyone else in the field wept when he entered a tournament?) Not even close. But at least he wasn't that sluggo of last week, a human five-golf cart pileup of bogeys, double-bogeys and half-shanks. This time, no one had to cover his or her eyes in embarrassment when he swung.

It was only the first round, so let's not hand him the Wanamaker Trophy just yet. But it was nice, almost reassuring, to see Woods' name in the northern part of the leaderboard rather than far below the equator.

He enters Friday's second round at 1 under par, well within the go-zone of the lead. A week ago at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he was already 4 over par and his game needed a tourniquet, stat. Woods would finish at a this-must-be-a-misprint 18 over and in a career-worst tie for 78th place.

"That's the way it goes," Woods said. "I mean, everyone has bad weeks."

But that's the thing: Woods' week wasn't bad; it was unprecedented. It was so horribly un-Tiger-like that you wanted to send his game a sympathy card. We're so sorry to hear about your loss.

And now this: a 71. … His first sub-par round since the first round of the British Open. … An actual sighting of Tiger resembling, well, Tiger.

"Welcome to golf," he said. "It is what it is. Guys shoot 59 and don't win. Fickle game."

And guys shoot 77s, as Woods did Sunday, and crumble like blue cheese. They don't recover. They make excuses.

Like him or despise him, Woods never makes excuses. If he stinks like skunk roadkill, he says so. If he says he's moving forward, getting closer, slowly finding his game, he says that, too.

After Thursday's round, Woods spoke tech-ese. He talked about getting his "lines" back, being able to release the blade, getting the toe moving again. This is Tiger golf shorthand for, "What were you saying about me not playing on the Ryder Cup team?"

I'll admit it: I thought he was cooked. Then again, I thought he was going to win at St. Andrews. Welcome to golf, right?

But the Woods of Thursday's PGA Championship didn't resemble the Woods of last Thursday's Bridgestone. He said he felt the same stepping onto the first tee box, but this time his swing and putting stroke didn't take a leave of absence.

"Everything was better," he said.

His driving was better (8 of 14 fairways). His iron play was better (12 of 18 greens in regulation). His putting was better (28). And unlike last week, when he looked like he'd rather sit in a colony of fire ants than play golf, his demeanor was better.

Whistling Straits isn't much fun. On Thursday, it was 7,522 yards of dunes, fescue, bunkers, heat, warm breezes and enough early morning fog to close an airport. And did I mention the constant strafing by Wisconsin's state bird, the mosquito?

Woods didn't seem bothered by any of it. He had a full stomach (a three-plus-hour fog delay gave him plenty of breakfast time) and the support of the galleries ("You're gonna win it, Tiger!" yelled a fan as he stepped to the No. 10 tee box). If he was scarred by last week's implosion, he didn't show it.

"[I] got off to a quick start, and all of a sudden I felt like I could shoot something in the 60s," he said.

He birdied his first hole, the 353-yard, par-4 10th. He birdied the 621-yard, par-5 11th. He birdied the 402-yard, par-4 13th. Four holes, 4 putts, 3-under par.

Woods should have birdied the par-5 16th and thought he had birdied the par-3 17th. So sure was he the 40-footer was going to drop that he raised his left hand in celebration. The ball screeched to a halt a half-inch from the cup.

There were some queasy moments. His drive on the par-5 fifth hole was dead the instant he hit it. The club flew out of his hand on the follow through and caromed off the grass.

He missed some putts. Had some iron shots into greens that weren't anywhere near the pins. Showed a tiny, but perfectly acceptable amount of frustration.

But after dropping to even par with two holes to play, Woods birdied the par-4 No. 9. Smiley faces all around.

"I played too good not to shoot under par, and it would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today," he said.

Woods is right. He deserved a red number. His game wasn't ninja-knife sharp, but it cut through Whistling Straits well enough. Best of all, he stuffed a head cover into the mouth of anyone (hi, there) who wondered whether he was worth a Ryder Cup spot.

Three rounds remain. I'm not drinking the "Tiger's Back" Kool-Aid just yet, but at least I've got a cup in my hand.

Like the man said, fickle game.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.