Tiger Woods returned to one of his happiest hunting grounds yesterday.

With a three-under-par 69, Woods, recovered from the ankle injury which led to him pulling out of his last PGA Tour event a fortnight ago, was three strokes off the early clubhouse lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

The former world No.1, making his last appearance before The Masters in two weeks' time, is a six-time winner of the title. With his only dropped shot coming as a result of three-putting the short 17th, Woods will draw confidence from a round that was four strokes better than that of Phil Mickelson.

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England's Justin Rose, winner of the recent WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami, matched Woods' score, while Ernie Els, who is hoping to win back his place in the world's top 50 and qualify for Augusta with a top-three finish, returned a 71. Nick Watney had set the early clubhouse target with a 68, but the Korean Charlie Wi is at the top of the leaderboard with a 66.

Scot Martin Laird began his title defence with a level par 72,as did Graeme McDowell and Sergio Garcia, while Ian Poulter had a 71.