PARAMUS, N.J. – A season filled with “worsts” finally gave way to a couple of “firsts” for Tiger Woods.
By missing only one fairway and having a birdie putt on all but two holes, Woods began the FedEx Cup playoffs with a 6-under 65 for a share of the lead with Vaughn Taylor after one round at The Barclays.
It was the first time in 335 days that he found his name atop the leaderboard on the PGA Tour.
It was the first time in 12 rounds, dating to the opening round at St. Andrews six weeks ago, that he broke 70.
It was the first time since the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool that he hit 3-wood on every par 5, an example of Woods choosing to navigate his way smartly around Ridgewood Country Club in soft conditions.
It was the first time he played a round without ever seeing anyone in front of him on the golf course, courtesy of being so far down in the FedEx Cup standings (No. 112) that he was in the first group off Thursday morning.
The first time he hit the ball so well?
But it sure felt that way.
“It’s exciting to hit the ball flush like this again,” Woods said. “It’s something I’ve been missing all year. I haven’t hit it flush. And it felt good to hit the ball and shape it both ways and really hit it through the wind. I’ve hit so many shots this year that haven’t been hit flush enough to get through the wind. But today, I was doing it all day.”
The next step, and perhaps a more important step, is where he goes from here.
It might have been sheer coincidence that Woods finally looked like the No. 1 player in his first competitive round since his divorce on Monday. There is not much left to say about his car crash after Thanksgiving night, the sex scandal that dominated supermarket tabloids, his five-month break from the game, his worst 36-hole score and worst 72-hole score in his PGA Tour career, and the end of his marriage.
It was all about his golf on a sunny day in northern New Jersey, and the news was good for a change.
Did he feel a weight lifted from his shoulders?
“I can’t really say that’s the case,” Woods said. “As far as golf, it was nice to put it together.”
It started with a simple 3-wood down the middle of the opening hole, a pitching wedge that landed 20 feet behind the hole and spun back on the spongy green to 15 feet below the cup, and the confident stride toward the hole when the birdie putt disappeared.
He made birdie on a par 5 – that’s news these days.
On one of the two holes where he hit driver – the par-4 fifth, measuring 291 yards – it was so flawless that his tee shot landed some 10 feet left of the flag and settled 15 feet away for a two-putt birdie.
Woods didn’t miss a green until the 11th hole, and while he dropped his only shot from a fairway bunker on No. 12, he recovered quickly with a birdie on the 13th, and a 6-iron that plopped down 2 feet from the cup.
Woods and Taylor both played in the morning, when the greens were smooth and the conditions were only breezy. They had a one-shot lead over Adam Scott, Brian Gay and Ryan Palmer. Scott played in the afternoon, where a gust of wind played tricks on him at the final hole and led to bogey.
Scott endured a long day in the pro-am Wednesday and didn’t think Ridgewood would serve up a 65 to anyone.
“Seeing some good scores this morning made me change my mind,” he said.
That one of those scores belonged to Woods was hardly a surprise.
“For him to piece things together can’t be too hard,” Scott said. “He’s very good.”
The 65 was his lowest score in 46 rounds, dating to a 62 in the BMW Championship last year. Taylor grinned when asked if he was surprised to see Woods’ name on the leaderboard.
“Somewhat, you know?” he said. “It’s good to see him back up top.”
With sunshine and a light breeze, conditions were ripe for scoring. Palmer had a chance to join the leaders until a three-putt bogey on the 18th put him at 66. Even though the greens became bumpy in the afternoon after so much foot traffic, the course was soft enough to allow for good scores. There were 14 players who shot 67, including Davis Love III, defending champion Heath Slocum and Stewart Cink.
Phil Mickelson, with his ninth chance in the past four months to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world, made only one birdie for a 72.
For Woods, the timing could not have been better.
Only the top 100 in the FedEx Cup standings advance to the second round of the playoffs next week in the Deutsche Bank Championship. Woods at least needs to make the cut, then finish in the middle of the pack. He had a better solution.
“I figure if I win, I should be OK,” Woods said.
For one of the few times this year, he gave himself ample reason to believe that.