Tiger hit the ball from all over Sawgrass but hung on to stay on the top half of the leaderboard.

Woods is at even-par after a day where his game looked patched together at times. But it could have been much worse — just ask his playing partner Phil Mickelson.

Tiger Woods returned to The Players Championship for the first time in three years and as you might expect, it was a five-hour grind to hang on at course where he’s got such an uneven history.

Woods finished with a even-par round of 72 thanks to a water ball at the 18th hole. There’s water on almost every hole at this course, and sometimes on both sides of the holes. Woods stayed away from the big trouble all day, despite some more wildness off the tee. But then he yanked one left with an iron into the massive lake that runs all along the 18th hole.

TPC Sawgrass is a test that really demands every part of your game and your attention on every hole. It was not Woods’ best round of this comeback that’s exceeded expectations, but he whipped his high profile partners Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson. At times it looked like he was hanging on for dear life, and at others it looked like he was blowing chances at a round in the 60s — a number he said he thought was possible given his game on the back nine on a softer course.

The shot of the day

Woods still has the ability to pull off shots that look straight out of an early 30s vintage. I wrote last week that despite his underwhelming tourney in Charlotte, there were still shots the made you curse in disbelief. That shotmaking is still in there and he’s executing a few of them a round that make this comeback such a departure from the prior failures.

A six-iron at the par-5 ninth hole was the reminder in this opening round. Woods sent one into the sky. The Protracer image of it almost went off the screen as the ball launched up and over some trees and dropped right in the center of the green. It was a fantastic shot he didn’t waste when he rolled in an eagle putt from the back fringe.

It was the loudest roar of the day on the course, his personal highlight of the round, and it was all set up by the dead pure mid-iron.

Woods jumped back into contention just a few starts into this comeback because of those clubs and that area of his game. His ballstriking and mid-irons were the greatest this sport has ever seen and while it could be sharper at times this year, it remains a strength that can cover up some of the other weaknesses and wildness. It delivered this critical eagle at the midpoint of the day and at the end of a shaky opening nine.

The dangers of chasing Tiger Woods

A Tiger gallery can provide some great people watching and truly stupid utterances. It can be entertaining with the right perspective and we got another amusing moment on Thursday. It came at someone else’s pain and expense, but these are the perils of trying to navigate the chaotic masses that follow the Big Cat around and sprint after every wayward drive.

Supergroups fizzle

Woods’ even-par number was sparkling compared to Mickelson’s 7-over 79 and Fowler’s 74. Mickelson showed up in his new button down shirt looking like he wanted to sell you insurance or prepare your taxes. And it was really a mess throughout the day, as he missed fairway after fairway and then completely imploded over the closing stretch. Despite his shaky form, which was not only ugly off the tee but also with that legendary short game, Mickelson actually got to the 14th tee at even-par. Then he bladed wedges, hit water balls, and fully ejected from the 45th Players Championship.

That’s a less than ideal finish.

It was the highest round either of them have posted in their limited runs playing together over the last few decades.

Between the morning group of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas and the Woods-Mickelson-Fowler trio, only McIlroy was living under-par on this day. The combined scores of the two powergroups is 12-over.

So take Woods’ even-par round in context, a context that includes Mickelson and his ridiculous shirt tied for 139th out of 144 players. The course was scoreable today, with a cluster of players at 6-under on the lead, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. But Woods’ round wasn’t all that bad in some tougher afternoon conditions. The putting was not nearly as trash as last week in Charlotte and he dodged the water until that final hole. Even then, he mitigated the damage and avoided the double with a clutch bogey-saving putt.

It’s likely he’ll get the easier scoring conditions in the AM wave on Friday and have a chance to make a move up the board before some of those early leaders even get to the range. Thursday could have been better, but everything is still fine. The health seems fine. The score is fine. This is all fine. That’s the status of this 2018 comeback right now.