PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — Tiger Woods finally looked like the No. 1 player in the world.
In his first tournament since his divorce, Woods played his best round of the year Thursday at The Barclays by missing only one fairway, putting for birdie on all but two holes and shooting a 6-under 65 for his lowest score all season.
“It feels good to be able to control my ball all day like this,” Woods said.
He wound up atop the leaderboard with Vaughn Taylor among the early starters. Woods has not led after any round since he won the Australian Masters last year, and he hasn’t been atop the leaderboard on the PGA Tour since the second round of the Tour Championship.
So much has changed since then — the car crash after Thanksgiving night, details of adultery, five months away from the game and a broken marriage, which officially ended Monday.
His golf hasn’t been very good either, which is why Woods began the FedEx Cup playoffs 112th out of 125 players who qualified. He was so low down the list that he was first to tee off under a sunny sky at Ridgewood, the first time he’s done that in his PGA Tour career.
It worked to his advantage.
“With fresh greens, everybody in our group was making putts on the front nine,” Woods said. “You had to get it today.”
And he did.
Woods hit driver only twice, including a tee shot on the 291-yard fifth hole that stopped 15 feet away. He only missed three greens in regulation, although one of those misses left him a 12-foot birdie putt from the range.
For a guy who’s had little go right this year, hardly anything went wrong. If there was a connection to Woods playing his best golf just three days after his divorce, he wasn’t saying.
“I can’t really say that’s the case,” Woods said. “As far as golf, it was nice to put it together.”
The 65 was his lowest score in 46 rounds, dating to a 62 in the BMW Championship last year. Taylor grinned when asked 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. Ryan Palmer had a chance to join the early leaders until a three-putt bogey on the 18th put him at 66, along with Brian Gay. Davis Love III, Camilo Villegas and defending champion Heath Slocum were at 67.
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. Woods opened with a 3-wood down the middle of the fairway, a pitching wedge to 15 feet below the hole and a birdie putt.
More followed, even on the par 5s, which have given Woods fits in recent months.
He used his driver only twice, deciding that his 3-wood was enough to reach the corners at Ridgewood without having to take on the tops of trees that line the fairways. Plus, with saturated conditions from rain earlier in the week, tour officials allowed players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.
“With the ball in hand, it’s much more important to hit the fairways,” Woods said. It was the first time since the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool that he hit his 3-wood off the tee on every par 5.
The two times he hit the driver turned out to be two of his best shots of the day.
With no wind on the 291-yard fifth hole, Woods hit a baby cut with his driver and knew it was good when the gallery packed in the grandstand behind the green let out a cheer that could be heard back on the tee. It landed pin-high and settled 15 feet away, and the eagle putt came up inches short.
“It was a really good shot,” he said, his smile getting bigger. “It was a sweet shot.”
The other drive came on the 18th, which he blasted more than 300 yards into the middle of the fairway. That left him a 7-iron that he hit to about 6 feet behind the hole for his 65.
More than hitting into the fairway was the shape the shot required, and pulling it off.
“It was just a low, bullet fade right around the corner,” he said. “It was just the shape of the shot, because it was different than most of the 3-woods I played all day. I didn’t hold a single 3-wood. I was turning them over. Now, the shape of the driver in the complete opposite direction … and I hadn’t hit a driver since the fifth hole.”
Among the late starters were Phil Mickelson, who has his ninth chance in the last four months to move to No. 1 in the world, although Woods’ opening round appeared to make that more difficult.
The Associated Press