Golf-Tiger in the mix at Valspar, Spieth and McIlroy struggle
March 8 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods took the bite out of the "Snake Pit" in his Valspar Championship debut to sit three shots behind clubhouse leader Corey Conners of Canada in first round action at Palm Harbor, Florida on Thursday.
Woods, who two weeks ago at the Honda Classic enjoyed the most encouraging result of his latest comeback from injury, mixed five birdies with four bogeys for a one-under-par 70 at Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead course.
That left the former world number one, who had spinal-fusion surgery last April and only returned to the PGA Tour this year, ahead of some other high-profile players competing this week, including world number four Jordan Spieth (76), four-times major winner Rory McIlroy (74) and Swede Henrik Stenson (74).
Woods arrived at the 16th, which is the start of a daunting three-hole closing stretch dubbed the "Snake Pit," with an eye on getting back into red figures and closing the gap on rookie Conners.
After scrambling for a par four, Woods then made birdie at the penultimate hole before a closing par left him in a share of eighth place with a handful of golfers still on the course.
For Woods, who was grouped with Spieth and Stenson, this week marks what is likely to be his penultimate event before the April 5-8 U.S. Masters.
The 14-times major champion got off to an ideal start with a tap-in birdie at the par-five first hole after nearly draining his flop shot from beside the green.
At even-par through nine holes, the 42-year-old Woods then made consecutive birdies to start the back nine but followed that immediately with a pair of bogeys.
Connors, who failed to qualify for the Valspar earlier this week and only made the field as an alternate, mixed five birdies with a closing bogey for the early lead.
Spieth began his round with a birdie but that was the only highlight of the day for the three-times major champion, who made five bogeys during a brutal seven-hole stretch starting at the par-four third.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia (70), who started on the back nine, reached three-under par through 12 holes but bogeys at the fourth and fifth holes took the shine off his round.
McIlroy, seeking his first PGA Tour win in 18 months, also started on the back nine and opened with 10 consecutive pars before a roller-coaster finish that included a double-bogey, two bogeys and a birdie.
Defending champion Adam Hadwin of Canada carded an even-par 71. (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)