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Struggling Tiger quick to bat away fears of a fresh injury

By Phil Casey

Tiger Woods insisted he had not suffered an injury setback despite his comeback continuing in somewhat demoralising fashion in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

Woods failed to card a single birdie as he slumped to an opening five-over 77 at Emirates Golf Club, two shots worse than his previous highest score in the event.

It was the 14-time Major winner's first birdie-free round since March 2014 and left him 12 shots off the lead held by bitter rival Sergio Garcia, who carded six birdies and an eagle in his 65.

Woods had said on Wednesday that his latest swing has been designed to "play away from pain" as he returned from a back injury which required three operations in the space of 19 months.

However, the 41-year-old did not look 100 per cent fit at various points, climbing gingerly out of a greenside bunker early on and grimacing as he walked off the tee on his 16th hole.

"No, I wasn't in pain at all," Woods said.

"I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn't doing a very good job. At the end I finally hit some good ones but the damage had already been done.

"On top of that, I could have hung in there, I could have shot something near even par if I would have made some putts, but I made nothing.

"I need to figure out what I did that was different and then replicate it for another, hopefully, 54 more holes."

In his first five appearances in Dubai, Woods never finished outside the top five and lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2008.

He finished 20th and 41st respectively on his last two visits in 2011 and 2014, but his career record at the event was still a combined 92 under par.

But he faces a massive task to avoid his second missed cut in a row, after making an early exit from his first PGA Tour event since August 2015 in San Diego last week.

Starting from the 10th, Woods bogeyed the 549-yard par five after failing to get up and down from a bunker, before dropping another shot by three-putting from just short of the 12th green.

Another shot went after his approach to the 18th came up short of the green and rolled back into the water, the World No.666 having to hole from eight feet to avoid a double bogey.

Woods struggled to get the pace of the greens and three-putted the fifth before missing from five feet for par on the next, while a miserable day was summed up by an uphill birdie putt on the ninth which was well short of pace.

"I left about 16 putts short," he added. "I just couldn't get the speed and, consequently, it added up to a high number.

"I could not hit the putts hard enough. I left every putt short. What I thought was down-grain, downwind, would be quick downhill and I still came up short. In the wind, uphill putts into the grain, I put a little more hinge on it trying to get a little more hit and it still didn't work."

At seven under par, Garcia held a one-shot lead over Chile's Felipe Aguilar and South Africa's George Coetzee, with England's Ian Poulter a shot further back after a 67.

"It was a nice way to start, a good solid round," Garcia said. "It was getting a little bit tasty at the end so it was nice to be able to get in with a good score.

"The wind was blowing harder as we went on and it's supposed to blow hard."

The forecast proved accurate and meant none of the afternoon starters were able to challenge Garcia's lead. New Zealand's Ryan Fox defied the conditions to card an impressive 68 and finish alongside Major champions Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Sweden's Henrik Stenson and Indian amateur Rayhan Thomas.

Belfast Telegraph

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