Originally created 07/05/97

Refreshed Tiger plays well, challenges O'Meara



LEMONT, Ill. (AP) - Returning from a one-week hiatus, Tiger Woods showed once again why he is THE story on the PGA Tour.

Woods shot a 5-under-par 67 Thursday to trail Mark O'Meara by just one stroke after the first round of the Western Open. Attendance was 40,106, the largest ever for the tournament's opening round. A huge group of fans followed Woods, the 21-year-old Masters champion, wherever he went.

"People in the bleachers ... clap because we finally show up," said Dave Stockton Jr., who was tied with Woods, Jim Furyk and Phil Blackmar. "They know Tiger's only an hour away."

David Duval, another stroke back with a 68, said Woods is clearly the tour's main man.

"People want to know how he had such a good day, and if he didn't, they want to know why," Duval said. "He is the story."

It didn't matter to the fans that Woods - who leads the PGA Tour with more than $1.4 million in earnings - had an average take of only $13,428 in finishing 67th, 19th and 43rd in his last three tournaments.

Woods showed in his first two holes at Cog Hill's Dubsdread course that he was back on track.

"Three-wood off the tee, sand wedge to two feet. Next hole, driver, 3-iron on the front edge of the green, pitched it to two feet," O'Meara said. "Yeah, I'd say he's fine."

Woods' game hadn't been fine, though, so he spent a week fishing, watching TV and relaxing.

"I was fresh, ready to go," said Woods, who hadn't broken par in 11 of his previous 12 rounds. "Last few weeks, I've been kind of tired. When I went home last week, I just put the clubs away for a little bit. And I felt rejuvenated."

Woods' day included his birdie-birdie start, a string of three straight birdies midway through the round, and a birdie-birdie finish. On his final hole - the 568-yard, par-5 ninth - he drove 316 yards into a 14 mph wind, hit a 3-wood past the pin and two-putted.

It wasn't a perfect round, though. On No. 18, he missed a 6-foot par putt. After he tapped in for one of his two bogeys, he pulled the ball from the cup and threw it into the pond to the left of the green.

"I was just frustrated ... trying to punish the ball," Woods said. "I think it deserved to go in the water."

O'Meara, like Woods, has slumped lately.

After finishing fifth on the money list last season and winning twice in his first four tournaments this year, O'Meara hasn't won. And since tying for third in the Bay Hill Invitational in March, he has finished higher than 30th in only one of eight events.

"I putted extremely well. I hit the ball a little bit better," O'Meara said. "My short game was good, and that pretty much carried me through the round."

O'Meara and Woods spent much of the day complimenting each other's shots, laughing and chit-chatting. Woods later called O'Meara, 19 years his senior, "my best friend."

"When we're hitting a shot, we're very intense, and when we're not hitting a shot, we're happy-go-lucky. We have fun," Woods said. "He's a big brother on tour. He's kind of taken me under his wing."

Woods rallied from well back to almost catch O'Meara at Pebble Beach in February. In the Western Open, the two buddies might battle from start to finish.

"If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to be tough on the weekend," said O'Meara, whose round included an eagle on No. 15. "I just hope I keep putting well."

Divots: Defending champion Steve Stricker, who has struggled all season, was part of a group three back at 3-under in the $2 million, Motorola-sponsored tournament. ... Nick Price, who won the tournament in 1993 and 1994, withdrew before the round due to a shoulder problem. ... Comedian Bill Murray caddied for Scott Simpson. ... Earlier in the week, O'Meara and Woods saw the movie Men In Black together. Two thumbs up.