Inspired Woods finds his form

The world No 1 hits 65 in New Jersey as seven birdies help him take an early share of the clubhouse lead with compatriot Vaughn Taylor.

Tiger Woods shot seven birdies on the opening day of the Barclays Classic.
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Tiger Woods showed no ill effects from his divorce as he shot a six-under par 65 yesterday to take a share of the early lead at the Barclays Classic. The world No 1, who has struggled through the longest drought of any year in his career, fired seven birdies against a single bogey at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey to claim the clubhouse lead with most of the field still playing.

In the first US PGA play-off event, Woods, the defending champion, needs to finish at least 57th to ensure he continues to advance to next week's event at Boston. The golfer's split from Elin Nordegren was made official on Monday, and yesterday he served notice to rivals that he can still perform at a top level after months of misery, most of which he kept to himself. "I came back. This is part of my job. It's what I do," Woods said. "Me coming back and playing golf had nothing to do with our decision to move our separate ways."

He has not won in nine events this year, the worst stretch of his fabled career. The 34-year-old American has gone 10 majors without a title, matching his longest drought. Just 18 days earlier, Woods finished off the worst 72-hole score of his pro career, an 18-over par 298 at the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational, on a course where he had previously won seven titles. Not since 2003 had Woods fired over par in every round of an event.

But after he sizzled to the top of the leaderboard yesterday, Woods appears to be back in the prime form that has seen him win 14 major titles, four shy of the all-time record set by Jack Nicklaus. It should all but seal his selection for the US Ryder Cup team that will defend the trophy against Europe in October in Wales. Woods opened with a birdie and made birdies on every other hole up to the seventh, missing a 15-foot eagle putt at the par-4 fifth.

After taking his only bogey of the round at the par-4 12th, Woods answered with back-to-back birdies on the next two holes and closed with a birdie at the par-4 18th to take the lead. He holed birdie putts from 14 and 18 feet and showed the consistency he has sought all season. His best showings have been shares of fourth at the US Open and Masters. Woods has been working with Sean Foley, a swing coach, for the past few weeks and had some sessions last week at his home in Orlando preparing for the Barclays.

Of his round, he said: "It's exciting to hit the ball flush like this again. "It's something I've been missing all year. It felt good to hit the ball and shape it both ways and really hit it through the wind." Joining Woods on 65 was fellow-American Vaughn Taylor, who birdied three holes in a row from the 13th, with compatriots Ryan Palmer and Brian Gay one stroke away on 66. Last year's Barclays winner Heath Slocum, Davis Love III, Jason Day and Chris Couch were in the clubhouse on 67 along with Camilo Villegas of Colombia and Australian John Senden.

Palmer, got off to a sensational start with birdies on the first five holes on his way to a seven-under 28 at the turn. However, he promptly double-bogeyed the 10th to slip back. Meanwhile, Italy's Francesco Molinari has clinched a place in Europe's Ryder Cup team after Ross McGowan pulled out of the Johnnie Walker Championship yesterday due to injury. McGowan shot a first round 77 at Gleneagles as he struggled with a shoulder problem and then opted to withdraw from the event, meaning he cannot now qualify for Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup squad.

The 28-year-old English player needed a top-two finish to have any chance of gaining an automatic place in the team. His withdrawal guarantees Molinari a debut at Celtic Manor in October. * Agencies