The bare numbers were a decent start — a three-under 69 to sit three off the lead of England's Tommy Fleetwood in the first round of the 18-man Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.Follow @cnnsportBut it was the manner of the former world No. 1's first competitive round for 301 days that gave optimism for the future.Woods appeared pain free in the aftermath of his fourth back procedure in April. A more restricted swing than of old, a combination of fusion surgery on his spine and advancing years — he will be 42 on December 30 — but he swung aggressively without grimacing and was able pick up his ball without being wary of his back. There were the trademark fist pumps (two) to greet a drained putt, some lengthy drives — often past 24-year-old playing partner Justin Thomas, the world No. 3 — some clutch putts holed in a style reminiscent of his dominant days, and even some cussing, which while unappealing at least suggests the fire is still there.READ: 'YouTube' star Tiger Woods 'loving life' and pain free ahead of returnWoods did look rusty with his chipping and made a mess of a couple — he spoke in the build-up about how, contrary to popular belief, his short-game suffered the most as he struggled with his long-term back problem because it was so painful to bend to the ball.And he was wayward on the five par 5s, an area the former assassin would have plundered heavily, playing them in one over.But for one round, at least, Woods is back."I didn't know what I could do," Woods told reporters. "I've been playing a lot of holes at home but it's different when you are in a tournament. I had a lot of adrenaline going and I had to dial it back a bit."Those are the internal struggles I haven't been through in a while. To come out here and score like I did was nice. It was fun to be part of a scorecard again."READ: Golf's biggest hitter who is long on personalityREAD: What it's like playing golf with Donald Trump
Woods returned from a 16-month layoff following multiple back surgeries at the same event, which benefits his charity, last year. Then, he finished 15th of 18, but hit the most birdies of anyone in the field to boost hopes of a resumption to a career which has yielded 14 major titles and 79 PGA Tour victories.But he missed the cut in his comeback PGA Tour event in California in January and withdrew with further back spasms after a 77 in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic in February. Since then he has been arrested for driving under the influence, been on a program to manage his pain medication, entered a first-offender program and pleaded guilty to reckless driving.Visit CNN.com/golf for more news, features and videosIt has been another turbulent year for the best player of his generation.But from the "dark times" when he couldn't get out of bed, a pain-free under par round of competitive golf, even on a resort course in an invitational event, represents promising progress.