He speaks so highly of the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland that some publications have referred to it as a bromance. And then there’s Greg Norman, who said it was a sign of insecurity and that Woods is intimidated by McIlroy, who has won three of his last four events dating to the PGA Championship.
“You probably don’t believe this, but I get along really well with a lot of guys out here,” Woods said Thursday after opening with a solid round of 4-under 66 to share the lead with Justin Rose at The Tour Championship. “Rory is no different. I give it, they dish it and we have a great time. This is a fraternity out here. That’s one of the great things about being out here for 17 years. You get to know the guys quite well.”
One guy looked fairly familiar, especially at East Lake.
Woods has won and been runner-up three times in his last four trips to the tree-lined course about 10 miles away from downtown Atlanta. He knows how important it is to keep the ball in play, and to keep the ball below the hole. Woods wasn’t perfect, but he managed six birdies on a warm day when the sun finally broke through cloud cover.
“I probably could have gotten a couple more out of it,” Woods said about his opening round. “But I was probably right on my number.”
Rose chipped in from about 20 yards short of the green on the 14th, the start of three birdies over his last five holes. It ended with an even bigger surprise. From the back of the green on the 221-yard closing hole, Rose faced a 50-foot putt with about 20 feet of break, and watched it snap to the right over the final few feet and into the hole.
He is No. 24 in the FedEx Cup standings, and a long shot to win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus.
“It’s a position of having nothing to lose, really,” Rose said. “Last year, I didn’t factor in the tournament, and this year maybe being a little bit looser out there is going to help me. I think I’ve only got this tournament on my mind. A lot of the other guys have two trophies on their minds.”
For Woods, it was a start toward what he hopes is a third FedEx Cup title in the six years it has been around.
McIlroy, who opened with a 69, also has his eyes on the title. Even on a relatively mild day, East Lake is not a course where it’s easy to post super low numbers or run away from the field. The top 18 players on the leaderboard were separated by only three shots after one round.
The advantage in this FedEx Cup goes to the top five seeds — McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker, all of whom only have to win the Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup.
Snedeker was in the group at 68, while Mickelson joined McIlroy at 69. Watney was bringing up the rear in the 30-man field with a 75.
Steve Stricker had the only bogey-free round and was at 67, along with Georgia Tech alum Matt Kuchar, Bo Van Pelt and Scott Piercy, the last man into the field. Piercy was at 5 under until he got tripped up in the rough behind the 18th green and took double bogey.
Piercy has a mathematical chance to win the $10 million, though the odds are ridiculously long. For starters, he would have to win and McIlroy would have to finish last.
“My chances are slim and none. I think slim is about to leave the building,” Piercy said. “If I win, I finish second (in the FedEx Cup.). It’s still a million-and-a-half for first place, and another $3 million for the FedEx, so I’ll take $4.5 million. That would be sweet.”
There’s something for everyone at this Tour Championship, mostly money.
For the fans, Thursday offered yet another pairing of golf’s two hottest properties. This was the fifth time in the FedEx Cup playoffs that Woods and McIlroy have been in the same group, and while Woods keeps winning the individual battles — this was the fourth time he had the lower score while playing with Boy Wonder — McIlroy is 2-0 when it comes to winning playoff events.
As usual, Woods didn’t read too much into that.
A boisterous gallery lined the fairways and crowded behind every green to see the latest edition of Tiger and Rory, and they didn’t disappoint. McIlroy is playing East Lake for the first time, and he struggled with the Bermuda rough around the greens.
“If you don’t hit fairways, it’s hard,” McIlroy said. “If you hit the ball in the rough here, it’s very, very difficult to get any control on your ball.”
Woods holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the second hole and stuffed a wedge into 5 feet on the third to get on track. He made bogey from the bunker on No. 4, and took another bogey on the 14th when his drive sailed into the rough. The Bermuda grass isn’t high, but it’s thin enough for the ball to sink to the bottom and make it difficult to reach the green, much less keep it on the green.
“Trouble is just right there in front of you,” Woods said. “It’s very simple, but it’s hard. It’s rare that you see guys go low here, but it’s very simple. Really, not a lot of trouble out here, but guys just have a hard time getting it low out there.”
“I felt like I hit the ball pretty good,” McIlroy said. “So just go out there tomorrow and try to play the same way, and maybe hole a few more putts and turn what I shot today into something in the mid-60s.”