The crowd at East Lake was larger and louder than it has been in five years, which was the last time Tiger Woods was at the Tour Championship.
It was no coincidence.
Woods played one of his best rounds of the year in his return to the FedEx Cup finale and caused the biggest cheer of a sun-baked Thursday afternoon by making an eagle putt from just over 25 feet on the par-5 18th for a 5-under 65 and a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler.
It was the second time in as many FedEx Cup playoff events that Woods was tied for the 18-hole lead. He shot a 62 at Aronimink in the opening round of the BMW Championship two weeks ago on a rain-soaked course that allowed just about everyone to go low.
This felt even better on a dry, tougher East Lake course.
“This was by far better than the 62 at Aronimink,” Woods said. “Conditions were soft there. This, it’s hard to get the ball closer. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can’t get the ball close. You just can’t control it.”
Fowler, who missed two playoff events recovering from an injury to his right oblique, putted for birdie on all but two holes for his 65 as he tries to avoid ending the season without winning.
Justin Rose, in his debut as the No. 1 player in the world, got up-and-down from the bunker for birdie on the 18th for a 66 and was tied with Gary Woodland. Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau, all of whom will be in France next week for the Ryder Cup, were another shot behind.
Woods already considers this a successful year just by making into the 30-man field at East Lake for the FedEx Cup finale, where everyone has a mathematical shot at capturing the $10 million bonus. He started the season in January after a fourth back surgery that limited him to only 16 PGA Tour events in the previous four seasons.
“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,” Woods said. “And I’ve done it?”
What would winning mean in this comeback?
“It would enhance the year,” he said.
Woods still has 54 holes remaining. Two weeks ago, he went from a share of the first-round lead to five shots behind on a course where attacking flags on soft greens was the only option for low scoring.
This was more about precision, and Woods felt in total control. He opened with a three-putt bogey from 25 feet, and he twice ran birdie attempts farther beyond the hole than he would have liked. But after making birdie putts from 25 feet on No. 5 and from 15 feet on No. 6, he figured out the speed of the greens and was on his way.
“I hit so many quality shots all day, whether it was tee-to-green or it was putts,” Woods said. “I didn’t really mishit a single shot today. The only shot I can honestly say that I necked pretty bad was the tee shot at 17. Hit a 3-wood there, and with an iron, I probably would have shanked it. But ended up in the fairway and made par.”
Woods will play in the final group Friday with Fowler, who has seen plenty of him at home in Florida in the months before Woods returned to golf. He had finished his round and was doing interviews when he heard the head-turning roar of Woods making eagle.
They will be teammates next week at the Ryder Cup. Fowler has other objectives at East Lake.
“The biggest win for him is just staying healthy and being out here all year consistently,” Fowler said. “Definitely happy for him. It’s obviously great for our sport. It’s great to have him as part of the team next week. We hope he continues to play well. I just want to play a little bit better and beat him.”
Sixteen players in the 30-man field broke par on a hot afternoon with only a light breeze, and Thursday was all about staying in the game, especially as it relates to the chase for the FedEx Cup.
Bryson DeChambeau, the No. 1 seed after the points were reset, had to birdie two of the last three holes for a 71. For someone like Woods or Fowler to win the FedEx Cup, they would need the top five seeds to falter.
Rose and Thomas didn’t go along with that with strong opening rounds. Finau overcame a pair of early bogeys for his 67.
The key for Woods could be Friday. Only once this year, at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, has he stayed consistently in the thick of it all tournament. He figures to have plenty of support. Houses along the side streets outside East Lake, and even one funeral home, offered parking and their yards were packed. It hasn’t been like that in several years.
“I hadn’t played this tournament in five years, and some of the people said they haven’t been out here in five years,” Woods said. “That’s kind of nice that they’re coming out and supporting this event and supporting me, as well.”