ATLANTA — Thursday started off like it might be another frustrating FedEx Cup playoff round for Tiger Woods. For the past three tournaments, he has driven the ball well and his iron game has been solid. He’s created lots of scoring chances, but Tiger had failed to make critical putts.
After hitting every fairway and every green in regulation at East Lake Golf Club through the first four holes, Woods’ wedge shot from 118 yards out stopped 26 feet from the fifth hole. Another green in regulation, which made it five for five, but it was probably unrealistic to think that he would make the putt.
And then he did.
“One time Tiger!” a fan yelled above the roar. “One time baby!”
The birdie got Woods back to even par, making up for the missed 6-footer that gave him a bogey on the opening hole. But it also felt like seeing that putt drop, as early in the 2018 Tour Championship as it came, signaled that Thursday might not be another hot, muggy, trial of Tiger’s patience. He went on to make birdie on the sixth, another on the 12th and 14th, and when he drained a 27-footer for eagle on the 18, he had a 5-under 65 that tied him with Rickie Fowler for the lead.
Gary Woodland made back-to-back birdies on 17 and 18 to shoot a 4-under 66. Justin Rose matched him with birdies on the last two holes for 66. Rory McIlroy had an up and down ride over the hills of East Lake but finished with a birdie to get to 3 under, as did Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Tony Finau.
“This was by far better than the 62 at Aronimink,” Woods said, referring to his opening round at the BMW Championship two weeks ago. “Conditions were soft there. It’s hard to get the ball close here. There’s so much chase in it. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can’t get the ball close.”
It may have been tough to get the ball close, but it is worth noting that Tiger did it often, and as good as his 65 felt, he would probably say that it could have been even better.
Tiger missed a 9-footer for birdie on the third hole, a 15-footer for birdie on the fourth and an 11-footer for birdie on the eighth. After zipping an iron shot to 11 feet off the tee on the 198-yard par-3 11th hole, he missed again.
No one is going to make all of those putts, but it would have been nice to make a few. On the bright side, Tiger’s driving and iron game set up those chances.
“More than anything, I missed it all on the correct sides,” said Woods, who hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation. “Even the fairways I missed, all were on the correct sides. I had nice angles. The shots I missed were on the greens; all had beautiful angles. All in all, I had a lot of control today.”
The driver changes that Tiger made at the Northern Trust, opting to go back to a shaft he had previously used and adding a degree of loft, have made him more confident off the tee.
“If I hit it normal, I hit it just as far, and so that’s to me like 300 yards in the air,” Woods said. “The neat thing about this one is that if I miss it and spin it a little bit, those spinners stay in play instead of chasing off on me, and I can turn this ball. Like the tee shot I hit down 18, I didn’t have that shot earlier with – not enough loft.”
If it feels like we were just here two weeks ago, you’d be right. The golf world went nuts after Tiger’s opening-round 62 at Aronimink, thinking that after a year of waiting, Tiger was finally going to win a tournament. It didn’t work out that way.
“My objective was to win a golf tournament and give myself plenty of looks at doing it,” said Woods, talking about his objectives at the start of the season. “The objective is to always win, but how am I going to do it when I had no game at the beginning of the year? And somehow I’ve got to find a way to piece it together and give myself a chance with what little game I had.”
Today’s Tiger had game. If this is the player who shows up to play 54 more holes at Bobby Jones’ home course, the Tiger Woods who hits fairways and greens and makes just a few putts each day, then it might be the Tiger Woods who completes that objective.