Tiger's return has peers eager to watch

AKRON, Ohio -- Players went about their business on the driving range at Firestone Country Club, sneaking a peek when possible, trying not to make it obvious.

Perhaps they listened for the sound of the ball coming off the clubface or tried to steal a glance to see the trajectory as it soared into the distance.

But make no mistake, even Tiger Woods' peers were interested to see how he looks and performs in his return to competitive golf after injuries caused him to miss two major championships.

That's why Lucas Glover was leaning over the ropes to see Woods tee off Thursday and why numerous other players had no trouble saying they were glad to have him back.

"He's great for golf," said Hunter Mahan, who won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational a year ago -- and finished 30 shots ahead of Woods, who suffered through perhaps his lowest moment as a pro.

"It's kind of like when [Michael] Jordan left and he retired for the first time. There was a hole in the game. [Woods] not being here, it's a great opportunity for other players to come up and show their skills and everything, but there's no one like Tiger. I've never seen anyone like him.

"He's one of those once-an-era type guys who's kind of changing the game forever. It's great that he's back."

Woods shot 2-under-par 68 in his first competitive round since May 12. On that day, Woods limped through nine holes at the TPC Sawgrass, took 42 strokes and ended up leaving the game for three months.

The injuries that were first described as minor to his left knee and Achilles turned out to be something more. Woods claims he would have been back much sooner had he chosen to sit out the Players Championship and not made the injury worse.

Regardless, the questions mounted. A game that has mostly been in tatters since his self-inflicted scandal wasn't going to get better sitting on the sideline with a boot on his foot.

The swing that has changed as he moved from Hank Haney to Sean Foley wasn't going to suddenly click into place if he couldn't even stand on a driving range, let alone pound balls for hours.

Yet on Thursday, Woods had a newfound power. He was ranked a mediocre 99th in driving distance on the PGA Tour this year, averaging just less than 290 yards. It was just one round, but Woods averaged some 20 yards more off the tee and seemed giddy about it.

"I hadn't hit the ball like this," he said.

Certainly, Woods needs to improve his driving accuracy, as he hit just five fairways. But that, really, is nothing new. He made just one bogey, drained some clutch par putts, rolled in a couple of long putts and walked away with the kind of score that was a pleasant surprise.

"We need him," said Germany's Martin Kaymer, ranked No. 1 in the world earlier this year and the reigning PGA Championship winner. "We really need him. He's the best player who ever played the game, and obviously he's struggling a little bit [coming into the tournament]. But I just hope he can go back to basics and show us how great of a golf player he is.

"Obviously what Rory [McIlroy] did at the U.S. Open was huge already. But Tiger, he has been so successful over the years; he was No. 1 in the world and now he's [28th]. It will be great if he comes back and shows us all or proves that he's the best player who ever played the game."

One round does not the comeback make, but it was an encouraging start.

Woods showed no signs of the injuries that plagued him for the past several months. He walked without a limp, crouched to read putts, took an awkward swipe at a shot from the rough on the 16th hole that had him contorting in various states.

Typically there might be some apprehension to guard against injury, to perhaps hold back.

But Woods said he dealt with all those issues during his recovery and training, and you might be able to make the leap that he's been working on his game a bit more than he let on.

"I just went out there and let it go," he said.

Woods somewhat stubbornly clings to his usual mantra that he is here to win, which is all well and good but perhaps a bit misguided. Nobody would hold it against him if he merely had a decent tournament, played four solid rounds of golf with no setbacks and used it as a launching point to his comeback.

And he is 6 strokes back of Adam Scott after 18 holes, which provides some irony in that he now employs Woods' former caddie, Steve Williams. Scott shot the lowest opening round in tournament history, a 62, to which the Aussie provided some humor.

"I don't know, he just seems to have a lot of good rounds in him around this place, that's for sure," Scott said of Williams -- who caddied for six of Woods' wins here. "He didn't think it was a big deal to shoot 62. It was normal."

It wasn't so normal to see Woods holding his own pin sheet, carrying his own yardage book, figuring out some of his own distances. Caddie Bryon Bell is just filling in, and although Woods downplayed it, seeing him do his own work was a bit strange.

Somewhat lost in all the Woods mania is that the WGC event has an excellent leaderboard. In addition to Scott, there's fellow Aussie Jason Day just 1 shot behind, and WGC-Cadillac Championship winner Nick Watney 3 back. Thomas Bjorn, Stewart Cink, Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson are all ahead of Woods.

Understandably, this day was about seeing what Woods brought back -- even for the players.

"I think he's ready, man," Mahan said. "I think he's ready to go out there and start playing some good golf. I think he's so eager. I mean, he hasn't really played in two years … and not even close to being healthy. A motivated Tiger and someone who has a challenge in front of him is a good thing for him."

Darren Clarke, his longtime friend dating back to the British Open at Royal Lytham in 1996 -- the tournament where Woods realized he was good enough to turn pro -- got to quietly root for Woods on Thursday.

Although the reigning Open champion struggled with his own game, the 42-year-old walked alongside Woods for 18 holes and saw plenty of good things.

"He played lovely," Clarke said.

That sums it up nicely.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.