Woods put drives in the water off the 17th and 18th tees and finished with a 2-over 74 on Thursday at Quail Hollow Club. That left him nine shots behind leader Bo Van Pelt, another early starter in with a 65.
"I was struggling so bad out there, just trying to piece together a round to keep myself in the tournament," Woods said.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson began his round in the afternoon, walking to the first tee amid cheers as Woods crossed the scorer's area.
Woods is playing his second PGA Tour event this season and hoped to build on a tie for fourth at the Masters three weeks ago.
But Woods hit only four of 14 fairways in the opening round. Will that mean a hard afternoon of practice to straighten things out?
"I'm not going to the range today, no," Woods said.
Things looked promising at the start when Woods, off a rousing welcome from a chilly crowd, hit a near perfect tee shot on the 10th and birdied his opening hole.
Then Woods could barely keep anything straight.
A drive into the left rough on the 12th hole led to a bogey. He saved par from near a holly tree on the 15th.
Woods' water world began on the picturesque, challenging par 3, 17th hole. Woods' ball sailed into the water, his second try stuck to the green but he could not make a 30-footer and came away with a double bogey.
"That's just a bad shot," Woods said.
Woods' problems continued on the par-4 closing hole when his drive ended up in a creek along the left side. He came up short of the green after taking a penalty stroke, then chipped to 3 feet for a bogey.
Woods followed with another bogey on No. 1, falling to 4-over par through 10 holes.
That's when Woods' game perked up. He hit to about 15 feet on the par-3 second and made the birdie. He added another birdie on the par-5 fifth after reaching the green in two.
Woods kept the surge going on the eighth hole with a chip to about 5 feet for birdie.
However, Woods ended with a bogey on No. 9 after hitting over the green on his approach shot, coming up well short of the pin on his chip and missing a 20-footer for par.
Woods' final nine left him hopeful of a stronger second round Friday. "One good round tomorrow could get me back in it," he said.
This is Woods' first tournament since the Masters, his 2010 debut that followed a sex scandal and a five-month leave.
Woods says he's tried not to pressure himself to achieve what he has in the past after his long layoff and what he's gone through in his personal life.
"I try and be easy on myself," he said. "But I know what I can do and I'm not doing it and that's certainly frustrating."
Woods was warmly welcomed throughout his round, although he admitted it was difficult to take it in because of his poor play.
"I had my head down struggling," he said. "I was dropping balls out of hazards and finding balls in trees, so I had my own issues out there."