Tiger Woods on track at The Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- One of his greatest victories occurred on this course, and it came well before he won a major championship, well before he pocketed a penny playing golf.

It was here at the 1994 U.S. Amateur, as a skinny 18-year-old wearing shorts, a straw bucket hat and a shirt that was too big in the blazing August heat, that Tiger Woods prevailed time and again, rallying for improbable victories in the match-play event, claiming the first of three straight titles in the tournament.

If golf fans were not aware of Woods at that point, the Amateur title changed that.

And yet, since that time, Woods has rarely had success at a venue that would portend his greatness.

Sure, he won The Players Championship here in 2001, but Woods was so dominant, so impressive during the run to his "Tiger Slam'' that he likely could have won hitting a shovel for a driver while putting over moon-like craters for greens.

Since then? A single top 10, and a lot of misery, never in contention coming down the final nine holes.

There were two painful withdrawals, including the 2011 tournament that saw him shoot 42 for nine holes and limp off, knee and Achilles injuries keeping him out until August.

Last year, with just one round under par, Woods was never a factor, tying for 40th.

And so, after all this time, now competing in The Players Championship for the 16th time, you just come to accept that perhaps the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course is simply not for him. He never says as much, never lets on that it is likely a venue he would prefer to avoid.

But of course Woods never raves about the place either. This is the PGA Tour's signature event, and he is going to play it, perhaps out of obligation. But if this were any run-of-the-mill tournament, you figure he'd have stopped coming long ago.

So Thursday's opening-round 67 would register as a mild surprise. Woods, of course, is capable of greatness at any time, anywhere. It's just that we have become conditioned to him struggling at Pete Dye's quirky course, usually digging a first-round hole and having to fight back at a place where it has proven difficult for him.

And he showed up early Thursday afternoon well behind. Roberto Castro, in his second year on the PGA Tour, posted a course-record-tying 63. Woods was nine back before sticking a tee in the ground.

"I've seen that a lot, but not at this golf course,'' Woods said.

The tendency, perhaps, is to press, to try to catch up, to force things. Even though it is a 72-hole tournament, you don't want to shoot around par or even over par, putting yourself too far back to catch up.

And through eight holes, Woods had just a single birdie, missing a 4-footer for another at the seventh and looking very much like he usually does at Sawgrass … which is to say on the verge of going the wrong way.

But then he rattled off four in a row -- two of them on par-5s -- made nice par-saves at the 14th and 15th holes, added another birdie at the 16th, managed to two-putt from 55 feet at the par-3 17th and stood one hole away from something he's never done here -- shoot a bogey-free round at The Players Championship.

In fact, had Woods been able to par the 18th, he would not have had a single 5 on his scorecard, which not only looks really nice but also typically leads to a good score.

After a perfect drive with a 5-wood, Woods had 200 yards left and chose an 8-iron ... which barely trickled over the green. That's a bit of a tough break, as a 9-iron seems too ridiculous from that distance. And from down in a swale, Woods failed to get his chip shot onto the green and settled for his only bogey of the day.

"It was surprising how far the ball was going,'' he said. "The ball was just traveling out there. The ball was going for miles, and it played, really, really short.''

Perhaps that is why Woods hit just five drivers, choosing 3-woods and 5-woods off the tee. He hit 10 of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens -- good but not great numbers -- and yet coupled with a solid short game, it was the kind of day that leads to a good score.

Woods took just 24 putts, but made nothing longer than 6 feet.

"It was a day that I felt like I had to go out there and shoot something in the 60s,'' said Woods, whose score tied for the best among those who teed off in the afternoon. "Most of the guys were under par in the morning session. The afternoon wave got a little bit of wind and it dried out the greens, and some of the greens were pretty bumpy.''

He has now played 12 of his last 13 rounds under par and is a combined 42 under par.

But back-to-back rounds in the 60s at TPC Sawgrass? You have to go back to his second and third rounds in 2004. Only one other time has he accomplished that feat, and that was when he had three straight on his way to victory in 2001.

Maybe this year is different. Woods has three victories, and the rules flap at the Masters overshadowed the fact that he contended again, having done so in his last three tournaments -- two of them wins.

So far, Woods has shown few signs of getting away from the game after the year's first major championship, his game solid if not spectacular.

Can he be more than an afterthought this weekend?

An early tee time Friday, when conditions are calm and the greens are smooth, should certainly help. So would holing a few more putts from longer distances. Another round in the 60s?

It all sounds so simple. Except for Woods, at TPC Sawgrass, it almost never is.