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Wounded Tiger's on the prowl

A sore Tiger Woods gets a back massage from his caddie, Steve Williams, on the 4th hole at Mount Juliet golf course in Ireland Thursday.
A sore Tiger Woods gets a back massage from his caddie, Steve Williams, on the 4th hole at Mount Juliet golf course in Ireland Thursday.
Peter Morrison, Associated Press

THOMASTOWN, Ireland — Tiger Woods looked as if he should have withdrawn with a bad back. He played as if he was capable of winning the American Express Championship for a third straight time.

Wincing on every shot and sometimes letting out a yelp at impact, Woods shot a 4-under 68 at Mount Juliet on Thursday that left him in a large group two shots behind British Open champion Todd Hamilton.

"I was hoping it might loosen up a little bit, but it didn't," Woods said. "I was hoping the spasms would go away, but that didn't happen, either. I just had to get through it somehow and post a number."

Woods hurt his back last week when he fell asleep in an awkward position on his private plane and said on the eve of the tournament he might have to withdraw.

It looked like he wasn't kidding.

He took two painkillers upon his arrival at Mount Juliet. After his tee shot on No. 4, he raised his shirt and had his caddie apply heating cream on his back. Woods did a curtsey to stick a tee in the ground and pluck his ball from the cup. And he walked the fairways with his back tilted to the side, trying to relieve the pressure.

Hamilton birdied four straight holes toward the end of his round to get to 7-under but made his only bogey on the 18th hole for a 6-under 66.

He had a one-shot lead over a trio of Ryder Cup players from Europe — Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Miguel Angel Jimenez — along with Stuart Appleby, Adam Scott and Steve Flesch.

Woods was grouped with U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen, Lee Westwood, Justin Leonard and Thomas Bjorn.

Even though he owns the oldest trophy in golf, it might take his third victory this year for Hamilton to get his due. Not many knew him when he beat Ernie Els in a playoff to win the British Open, and Hamilton was left off the Ryder Cup team despite a victory earlier this year in the Honda Classic.

He looked sharp toward the end, holing birdie putts of 30 and 20 feet, hitting it to 10 feet on No. 16 and then two-putting for birdie on the 17th. He dropped his only shot on the closing hole, going from rough to rough, and having to get up-and-down from the side of the green for bogey.

Garcia had a share of the lead for most of the day but also dropped a shot on the 18th from a greenside bunker.

The air was cool and heavy, and overnight rain made the course play a little longer. But the greens at Mount Juliet are among the best in golf, which helped with scoring. There were 25 players within three shots of the lead, and 52 players in the 68-man field shot par or better.

"The putter felt good the whole day," Hamilton said. "If you can't putt on these greens, you can't putt. Because the greens are spectacular."

Woods didn't figure to be close, in obvious pain during a practice session, taking his time before getting to the full swings, backing off or quitting at impact. or quit on the swing soon after making contact. He cursed under his breath as he stepped up for his first tee shot.