Mar16 CaseyleadsPGA

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Paul Casey leads the Bay Hill Invitational after an inspirational first round.

He may have Tiger Woods breathing down his neck as they share the lead on six under, but the gritty Englishman is coming into form at just the right time - three weeks before the Masters.

Woods played his best golf in nearly six months, giving himself a birdie opportunity on all but one hole. He opened with four birdies in the first six holes, missing putts of 10 and 12 feet on the other two.

"It's definitely the best round of the year," Woods said, pausing for effect. "I haven't played that many rounds."

Even so, he could not remember the last time he hit 17 greens in regulation, especially on a Bay Hill course with ankle-deep rough framing the tight fairways.

And while Palmer changed the scorecard to a par 70, it didn't stop Woods or anyone else.

The 64 was the lowest opening round at Bay Hill since Woods shot 64 in 1998. Casey's only previous trip to Arnie's course was in 2004, when he shot 77 in the first round and withdrew. He also played without a bogey, joining the leaders with an approach into 7 feet for birdie on the 18th.

"Having played it twice now, I can honestly say I enjoy the golf course," Casey said.

The record for most rounds in the 60s on any day at Bay Hill was 41 in the second round of the 2000 tournament. With 11 players unable to finish Thursday because afternoon storms moved into the area, there already were 42 scores in the 60s.

Masters champion Phil Mickelson  didn't have one of them. He hit into the water on the eighth to take double bogey and followed birdies with bogeys on his way to a 72.

"I scored terribly," Mickelson said. "I scored 2 over on a course with soft greens that wasn't playing very hard."

Woods won every year from 2000 through 2003, but after opening with a 67 the follow year, he failed to break 70 his next 11 rounds and was rarely in contention. He fixed that situation quickly Thursday morning, even as a strong gust kicked up early in his round.

"I thought it was important for me to shoot at least under par on that front nine, and that was all I was concerned about," Woods said.

The only green he missed was his only bogey.

After a 3-wood on the 18th -- his ninth of the round -- he was between a 9-iron and a wedge over the water. The ball took aim at the pin, hit about 6 feet short, then spun enough to trickle off the green against the rocks framing the water. Woods said he could have hit the next shot if it were a practice round or his pro-am, but didn't want to risk a big number.

"I may have left one or two shots out there," he said. "Well, 64 around here is not too bad."

It wasn't that unusual, either.

Sergio Garcia, Trevor Immelman and Sean O'Hair were in the group at 66, while Ernie Els put his tee shot into the water on the par-5 sixth and made double bogey, but steadied himself for a 69.

About the only thing Palmer can do now is pour concrete on the greens.

"The greens were very receptive," Casey said when asked about the good scoring in breezy conditions. "That was key. If you were in the fairway and had the right club in your hand, you could really attack the flag."

One of the par 5s converted to a par 4 was the fourth which played even shorter from a forward tee at 463 yards. Woods and Garcia wound up hitting 5-wood off the tee and a short iron (8-iron for Woods, 7-iron for Garcia) into the green.

The 16th played into the wind, but most players kept the ball in the short grass and kept big numbers off their cards. That was the key for getting it around Bay Hill, for Garcia narrowly missed the fairway at the par-5 sixth and could only chop it out with a 6-iron.

Most everyone at Bay Hill is in the Masters or trying to get there, and each round feels like building blocks.

"The whole idea is just to keep improving, keep fine-tuning and have everything together the first week in April," Woods said, who appeared headed in that direction.