Bethesda: Tiger Woods struggled to a three-over par 74 Thursday in his first competitive round after a three-month injury layoff, battling back after a woeful start at the US PGA National.
On a Congressional Country Club course where Woods won in 2009 and 2012, he showed troubles off the tee and with the putter in his much-anticipated return after a 109-day absence due to back surgery to relieve a pinched nerve.
The legendary shotmaker, who won four majors in a row starting with the 2000 US Open, could not consistently summon the skill that drew worldwide audiences to him, but raised his game with three birdies and three pars over the final six holes in his first warm-up round for next month's British Open.
Teeing off at the 10th hole to cheers and applause, Woods opened and closed the back nine with back-to-back bogeys to make the turn four-over, then added back-to-back bogeys at the second and third holes before responding with a birdie at the fourth and consecutive birdies at the seventh and eighth holes.
Woods, chasing Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 major titles, hopes to play his way into shape this week ahead of the British Open at Royal Liverpool, where the 14-time major winner took the Claret Jug in 2006.
Woods, who has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open and not broken 70 on the weekend at a major since the 2011 Masters, had not played in any event since March 9 at Doral, where he fired a 78, the worst final-round score of his pro career.
The 38-year-old American spent months recuperating and slowly progressing to the point where he could swing a driver at full strength and he continues to take physiotherapy exercises.
Woods, saying he felt pain-free for the first time in two years, recovered ahead of schedule and received doctors' approval to make his comeback at the National, a $6.5 million event that benefits his charity foundation.
Overtaken last month by Australian Adam Scott for the world number one spot, Woods has fallen to fifth in the rankings while idled.
Woods began his comeback at the par-3 10th hole, sending his tee shot over the green and into a bunker. He blasted out to 17 feet then slid his par attempt three feet beyond the cup.
At 11, Woods left his approach short of the green and missed an 18-foot par putt.
But at 14, Woods dropped a 174-yard approach nine feet from the pin and made the putt for the first birdie of his comeback.
Woods pulled his next tee shot left into the rough and went on to bogey 15.
After missing a six-foot birdie putt at the par-5 16th and settling for par, Woods failed on a seven-foot par putt at 17 and then found the right rough off the 18th tee and missed an 11-foot par putt for his second bogey in a row.
Woods found the rough at the par-3 second and later left an 11-foot par putt inches short for a bogey that dropped him 10 strokes off the pace.
Woods missed a six-foot par putt at the third for another bogey to reach six-over, last in the field of 120.
But Woods bounced back with four-foot birdie putts at the fourth and par-3 seventh and dropped his approach at the eighth three feet from the cup to set up yet another birdie and provide hope for reaching the weekend.
Woods, who figures to be battling just to make Friday's cut to the low 60 and ties, was seven shots behind clubhouse leader Ricky Barnes. Woods predicted he would be rusty at the start.
"I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps (preparation and repetitions) that I would like," Woods said Tuesday. "But I'm good enough to play and I'm going to give it a go."
Woods, who will play the first two days alongside Aussie Jason Day and 20-year-old US star Jordan Spieth, took his most recent victory last August at the World Golf Championships event in Akron, Ohio.