ATLANTA — One name clearly stood out on the star-packed leaderboard after Thursday’s first round of The Tour Championship.
On a sweltering day at East Lake Golf Club, the game’s biggest draw ignited roars throughout his round, none bigger than the one that rocked the stately clubhouse a few yards away from the 18th green when he canned a 28-footer for eagle to join Rickie Fowler atop the leaderboard.
It capped a day of precision and control for the former world No. 1 who is 17 months removed from spinal fusion surgery, a day when he missed just four fairways and four greens in regulation, put his signature to a 5-under-par 65 and moved one day closer to win No. 80 and his first since 2013.
And Woods placed himself squarely in the mix to win his record third FedExCup and the $10 million bonus. So, too, did others, including Fowler, who birdied the last hole to gain a share of the lead.
In third at 66 are world No. 1 Justin Rose and Gary Woodland. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, defending FedExCup champion Justin Thomas and Tony Finau each shot 67. Jason Day, Jon Rahm and Paul Casey were in at 68. Brooks Koepka, the winner of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship this year, was at 69.
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“I felt in control today,” said Woods, playing in the season finale for the first time since 2013. “I hit so many quality shots all day, whether it was tee to green or it was putts. The only hard part was getting my speed on the greens early. Once I figured out the pace of these things, it was all good.”
“I played well today,” Woods said. “It wasn’t exactly the start I was looking for, but I made two good putts there at 5 and 6 and got to under par, and then from there I hit it pretty good, made a few putts.
“All in all, I had a lot of control today.”
It’s been that way for some time now for Woods, who earned a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team on the strength of six top-6 finishes in his comeback season, including a tie for sixth in the British Open and a second in the PGA. Then he tweaked his driver by switching shafts and adding loft to the face. He sacrificed distance but gained accuracy and confidence.
In his last start, he also shared the first-round lead after a 62 in the BMW Championship. He got within one shot of the lead in the final round and tied for fourth. Thus, upon arrival at East Lake, where he won in 2007 and finished second in 2009, Woods had this look about him, one that implied that after all his time battling injuries and conquering doubts that he’d never play again, this could finally be the week he wins again.
“I don’t want to say the difference with the driver has been night and day, but it’s been really good,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “For the most part, he’s standing on the tee knowing he’s going to hit the fairway instead of thinking he’ll hit the fairway. He’s hitting cuts with the driver and he’s hitting tight draws with the driver. He’s working the driver, and he’s shaping it nicely.
“So, if he hits more fairways, which he’s been doing, he’s going to give himself more chances, which he’s doing, because he’s the best modern-day iron player there’s ever been.”
In Friday’s second round, Woods will be paired with Fowler, who played many rounds with Woods when he first started his comeback.
“I remember there was a day we were up at the Medalist (in Florida) and we played 18, and I was going to go home and work out, and he went out to go play another nine,” Fowler said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been able to see him just go play for fun. He wanted to keep playing, so he kept playing.
“In my eyes, the biggest win for him is just staying healthy and being out here all year consistently. It’s obviously great for our sport. It’s great to have him as part of the (Ryder Cup) team next week. We hope he continues to play well. I just want to play a little bit better and beat him.”