FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods treated the first round of the Barclays like it was the U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy acted like it was a mere FedEx Cup event. Their contrasting styles of play — and the vastly different vibe they projected — made for a compelling 18 holes, but at the end of a steamy morning little separated the playing partners: Woods shot a three-under-par 68, McIlroy a two-under 69. Padraig Harrington took the lead with a 64.
Woods and the host venue, Bethpage Black, will always be linked given that he won the People's Open in 2002, when the retro-fitted course earned the rep as one of the toughest tests in championship golf. Ten years later Bethpage can still be a brute, but when Woods and McIlroy teed off on the 10th hole at 8:16 on Thursday morning, the greens were soft, the pin positions were generous and there wasn't a breath of wind. In those conditions any course is vulnerable, and the scoreboard quickly began bleeding red numbers, including three birdies in the first six holes by McIlroy, who attacked relentlessly, as is his wont.
But Woods seemed to think he was playing for another national championship. He summoned the cautious, grind-it-out style that characterized his play at this summer's majors. He laid up off the tee on the 12th and 13th holes — a 501-yard par-4 and a 608-yard par-5, respectively — leaving himself miles behind McIlroy, who blasted drivers over all of the trouble. (On the eve of the tournament, the kid had said, "I put a new driver in the bag a few weeks ago and feel like I've got a bit of extra distance from it, and I feel confident with it. Hopefully going to be an important club this week.") On the brutal par-4 15th hole, uphill all the way at 478 yards, McIlroy split the fairway with a towering draw. Woods finally reached for his driver but hit a weak push-fade into the rough. From there he slashed a shot that cleared the front bunker by a foot or two and expired on the front of the green. McIlroy covered the flag with a majestic approach, stopping his ball on the tiny second tier, 10 feet from the hole. Then he brushed in his birdie putt.
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At this point McIlory was making it look a little too easy, which seemed to offend Woods, who was exerting maximum effort just trying to keep up. Woods is a man of immense pride, and the day before, in a press conference, he had endured five questions about McIlroy, including three in a row at one point. Other players used to be worn down having to talk about Tiger; he's not ready to turn into a ceremonial gusher yet. On the 16th tee, with a driver, Woods made his most confident swing of the day, splitting the fairway, and that seemed to get him going. (He probably didn't mind that McIlroy made his first bogey, from a fried-egg lie in a greenside bunker.) When Woods drained a 30-footer on the second hole, his 11th, he loosed his first fist-pump of the day. That's more intensity than most players are able to summon on a Thursday morning. At two under par he was within one of McIlroy. In a golfing parable of the tortoise and the hare, Woods pulled even when his rival made bogey after an errant tee shot on the par-3 third.
With the morning gloom having burned off, Woods began glistening from all of his exertion. He was serenaded by calls of "Tigah!" on every hole; the media is ready to anoint this the Rory McIlroy Era, but Woods remains the people's choice. (That is, as long as he's not paired with Phil.) As Woods got deeper into his second nine, he began swinging with more conviction. When he got up-and-down on the par-5 fourth hole, he nosed ahead of McIlroy by a stroke. (Tiger had gone for the green after an excellent drive, which, it must be said, still left him hitting before McIlroy.) The carefree young Ulsterman kept bashing his driver, but he took another bogey from the rough at the par-4 sixth hole, where Woods also made 5. Both players birdied the par-5 seventh; for those keeping score at home, McIlory outdrove Woods by two yards.
Related Photos: Rory McIlroy's career in pictures
At round's end, the tale of the tape was remarkably similar: both players hit 9 fairways; Woods reached 14 greens in regulation, McIlroy 15. Woods averaged 306.5 yards per drive, McIlory 309.5. The short-game was a difference-maker, as McIlroy took two more putts — after the round he lamented burning numerous edges — and was only one-for-three in sand saves. Both players pronounced themselves pleased, Woods with his flatstick ("I putted great today") and Rory with his long game ("Hit a lot of great tee shots and a lot of good approach shots, as well").
Though they had to weather a gallery that was, uh, boisterous, McIlroy said he enjoyed the buzz of the high-profile pairing: "It always adds a little bit of intensity to it, I think. I feel it just focuses you from the get go." Woods also spoke highly of his playing partner: "He's a nice kid, he really is. We struck up a friendship [playing together earlier this year in Abu Dhabi], and it's continued, and I think it's only going to get better."
Of course, it's easy to be magnanimous when you've posted the better score. Your move, Rory.