ATLANTA — The goal all along was to win a tournament, as silly as that may have sounded — even to Tiger Woods.
First came being able to play, and then putting together a game, and then giving himself chances. All of that has happened in rapid succession throughout a nine-month run of what Woods has called one of his best years, even without a win.
Now that possibility exists again.
It was just one round, and Woods has had several chances to win this year, but his opening 65 at East Lake on Thursday was every bit as good or better than the 62 he shot two weeks ago to start the BMW Championship.
And the closing eagle putt that dropped to him to a tie atop the Tour Championship leaderboard with Rickie Fowler certainly was a nice boost.
“It would enhance the year,” Woods said at the prospect of PGA Tour win No. 80. “To be able to play golf again and to earn my way back to this level is something that I was hoping I would do at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t know. And I’ve done it.”
Not that it will be easy. Fowler, who is looking for his first win of 2018, also shot 5-under-par 65, and Gary Woodland is one stroke back along with Justin Rose. Rory McIlroy, who was 4-under par through 11 holes and made seven birdies, settled for 67 and is two shots back, along with Justin Thomas and Tony Finau.
There is a lot of firepower among those players, and the 42-year-old Woods no longer has quite the arsenal that they possess.
But by actually dialing back his distance off the tee with a tweak to his equipment last month, he has enhanced his accuracy and given himself more chances. If only a few putts would drop — and on Thursday, at least over the closing nine holes, they did.
“I don’t want to say the difference has been night and day, but it’s been really good,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “He’s missed a few fairways, but everyone is going to do that. But 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.”
Woods hit 14 of 18 greens and made his only bogey at the first hole — where he three-putted. He added birdies at the fifth, sixth, 12th and 14th holes, made a nice save after his lone poor drive at the 17th, then rolled in a 30-footer for eagle at the 18th after reaching the green in two with a 5-wood.
Tommy Fleetwood, who was paired with Woods, took to Twitter after Thursday’s round to share his thoughts on his playing partner’s performance.
Tiger Woods is good at golf
— Tommy Fleetwood (@TommyFleetwood1) September 20, 2018
This is the final tournament of the PGA Tour’s 2017-18 season, and the FedEx Cup champion also will be decided. Bryson DeChambeau, who came into the tournament atop the FedEx Cup standings, shot 72 and is in a tie for 24th.
Although there is a long way to go and a lot needs to happen, Woods for a time was projected first in the FedEx standings. The only way he can win the overall title — he won it in 2007 and 2009 and is the only player to do so twice — is to first win the Tour Championship and then have various outcomes among players near the top.
The winner of the FedEx Cup receives a $10 million bonus.
Woods can only control his own game, and it’s hard find much fault. He was third in strokes gained tee to green, sixth in strokes gained approach to the green and sixth in strokes gained putting. Even on the greens, he had three birdie putts inside of 11 feet that he missed.
“The only shot that I can honestly say that I ‘necked’ pretty bad was the tee shot at 17,” he said. “Hit a 3-wood there, and with an iron, I probably should have shanked it, but ended up in the fairway there and made par.”
He will be last off Friday with Fowler, a frequent practice-round partner of Woods in South Florida who has his own aspirations this week.
“In my eyes, looking at it, the biggest win for him is just staying healthy and being out here all year consistently,” Fowler said of Woods. “Definitely happy for him. It’s obviously great for our sport. It’s great to have him as part of the [U.S. Ryder Cup] team next week. We hope he continues to play well. I just want to play a little bit better and beat him.”
There were 10 players in the 30-player field who shot over par in the first round, including BMW Championship winner Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team next week. Both shot 73.