By Larry Fine
WINDERMERE, Florida (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has pronounced himself fit, but he did not appear ready quite yet as his rust showed on Thursday at the Hero World Challenge after a nearly four-month absence from competition.
Woods, who shut down his 2014 season in August after having back surgery and then further discomfort, was five-over and in last place after the first nine holes at his former home course of Isleworth in an 18-man event benefiting his foundation.
The 38-year-old American began inauspiciously in front of a massive sculpture of a charging bull when he cranked his first shot of a warm, sunny day through the fairway of a dogleg right and just short of a pool in a former neighbor's yard.
Politely cheered on by a friendly gallery hoping to see the former world number one take a positive step, Woods stumbled again with a bogey at the par-three second.
Looking slimmer and less muscular than in recent years, Woods had trouble controlling the ball and did not hit his first fairway until the sixth hole.
His worst hole came at the par-four eighth.
Once again, he came close to making an unscripted visit in his former neighborhood when his tee shot soared to the left, carried through a stand of trees and bounced off a metal fence fronting a home.
With a limited backswing, Woods tried to punch out but ricocheted off one of the trees on his way to the fairway. The tournament host, who backhanded his club against the fence in sounding a clank of frustration, took a double-bogey.
The crowd at the small tournament held in the exclusive enclave was still in his corner.
"His swing is looking better, smoother," said local fan Joe Nugent. "We're rooting for him."
Australian visitor David Holman, walking along with his brother Alan, said he liked what he was seeing in Woods's swing.
Rising American talent Jordan Spieth was in the lead at four-under through eight holes.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)