Tiger Woods talked often and laughed easily with playing partner Rory McIlroy while shooting a four-under 66 to grab a share of the first-round lead at the Tour Championship on Thursday.
The mood may not be so light Sunday with $11.44 million on the line.
Two-time FedEx Cup champion Woods, who hasn't finished worse than second in his last four starts at East Lake, showed he can still outdrive McIlroy, chipped in from behind the 12th green and matched Justin Rose's earlier 66, while McIlroy, in his first competitive round at East Lake, shot a 69.
"I played well today," Woods said. "It was a very consistent round. I hit the ball well, made a few putts, and got up and down a few times."
As for his titanic, 346-yard blast on the par-5 ninth hole, which was well past McIlroy's ball and led to one of his six birdies, Woods said, "I still have it in there. I just don't use it on every shot like I used to."
Woods and Rose led Matt Kuchar, Scott Piercy, Steve Stricker and Bo Van Pelt by one shot. Of those six men only Woods controls his destiny, but with 21 of the 30 players at par or better and within four shots of the lead, and with three rounds still remaining, anything can happen.
"We both played pretty well," said McIlroy, who was not at his best tee to green but scrambled with, among other memorable shots, a 34-foot par putt on 13. "Tiger obviously shot a little better score than me, but I thought the quality of the golf was pretty good. I really like the golf course."
Rose pitched in for birdie on 14, and made a curling, 50-foot birdie putt on 18. Although the Tour Championship's $1.44 million first prize is obviously within his reach, the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus is highly unlikely for the Englishman. At 24th in the points standings, he would need to win and for the top five in points, including No. 1 McIlroy and No. 2 Woods, to completely collapse. That's unlikely, given that four of the five FedEx points leaders — all of whom would win the $10 million FedEx bonus plus the $1.44 million Tour Championship first prize with a victory this weekend — shot under par Thursday. Brandt Snedeker overcame a terrible start (3 over through six holes) to shoot 68. Phil Mickelson, a two-time winner at East Lake, hit only three fairways but still signed for a 69.
Among the top five in FedEx points, only Barclays champion Nick Watney shot himself out of the tournament with an opening-round 75.
The first day belonged to Woods and McIlroy, the once and current No. 1 players in the world, as expected. Woods played through a few mud balls on the rain-soaked fairways, and bogeyed the par-4 fourth and 14th holes. McIlroy overcame an opening bogey and was perfect from the sand. The day's highlight came at the downhill, par-4 12th hole, where Woods chipped in after seeing his approach shot overshoot the green, and McIlroy made a long, right-to-left birdie putt on top of him. "It was nice just to hole one," McIlroy said, "because I hadn't made a putt all day."
Woods is going for his fourth victory of 2012, although he's not won a major since 2008. McIlroy is aiming for his fourth victory in five starts, and his fifth overall this season, including his win at the PGA Championship last month. The two may face each other in the Ryder Cup a week from Sunday.
Still, the two friendly rivals, who also played together in the first two rounds of the Barclays and the BMW, were as chatty as ever Thursday. And they were still having fun with the idea that the 23-year-old McIlroy, with his two majors and six Tour victories overall, is somehow intimidating the 36-year-old Woods, a 14-time major winner with 74 overall Tour wins, as the outspoken former No. 1 Greg Norman recently speculated.
"As you could see out there today, he's definitely not intimidated by me," McIlroy said, "and I don't think I'm intimidated by him." To be continued.