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Woods in happier mood, Holmes and Allenby lead

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Tiger Woods buried the memories of his Quail Hollow nightmare last week while fellow American JB Holmes and Australian Robert Allenby took joint control of the Players Championship on Thursday.

World number one Woods, who missed the cut for only the sixth time as a professional at the Quail Hollow Championship, cut a very different figure at the TPC Sawgrass as he ground out a two-under-par 70.

The 14-times major winner recorded three birdies and a lone bogey in benign conditions to end an opening round of low-scoring four strokes behind the pacesetting Holmes and Allenby.

British world number four Lee Westwood was among a group of eight players bunched on 67 in a tie for third.

With the smile back on his face and a bit of swagger in his stride, Woods was on track for his first bogey-free display at Sawgrass in 13 appearances before he faltered at the last.

Despite bogeying the hole after pulling his tee shot left into water, he was overall satisfied with his start in the tournament widely considered the "fifth major" by the players.

"I was just grinding my way around," Woods told reporters. "I kind of placed my golf ball around the golf course. I felt good.

"I left a few shots out there and I didn't make any putts today at all," added the 34-year-old, who totaled 31 putts. "I had a few chances in there to make some putts, make some birdies, and I didn't really do it."

Having recently returned to golf after a self-imposed break of five months following revelations about extra-marital affairs, Woods felt he had received unfair criticism for his rusty form.

"Obviously I have had some bad days but I've played six competitive rounds in seven months and people need to be a little more realistic.

"It takes time to get into the rhythm of competing and it takes tournaments."

SURPRISINGLY CALM

On a surprisingly calm day at Sawgrass where the greens were receptive and the average score of 71.103 was the lowest for the first round in 17 years, Holmes took advantage to set the early pace.

"It was a fun day, one of those rounds where everything was going pretty good," the long-hitting American said after firing a flawless six-birdie 66.

"I wasn't in too much trouble at any point ... one of those rounds where it's not easy but it kind of felt pretty easy."

"I played well all day, drove it well and hit my irons well into the greens," said Allenby, a four-times winner on the PGA Tour.

"I was a bit unlucky with my tee shot on eight ... I just left myself an impossible putt. But overall I'm very happy."

U.S. Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who could take over as world number one for the first time if he wins this week and Woods finishes outside the top five, matched his long-time rival by carding a 70.

"Shooting 70 today isn't the round that you want," Mickelson said after recording four birdies and two bogeys.

"There wasn't much wind, the greens were receptive and there were a lot of low scores.

"The reason I think this was a good day for me is I just didn't have it ... and yet I was able to shoot a couple under par. If I can come out tomorrow, get hot and shoot something in the mid-60s, I can get back in the tournament."

(Editing by Steve Ginsburg/Frank Pingue)